Singer, actor and dancer Jasmine Guy is best known for playing Whitley Gilbert, a black bourgeoisie princess, on “A Different World,” the 1987 “Cosby Show” spinoff where she was a star for six seasons. But she is a well-rounded performer who got her start dancing with the Alvin Ailey Company and in “Fame.”
Guy, who has performed on Broadway in such shows as “Grease” and “Chicago,” has been on TV in “Touched by an Angel” and “Drop Dead Diva,” as well as in such films as “Harlem Nights” and Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
She comes to the Twin Cities to headline “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey.” In the show, which she performs Friday at the O’Shaughnessy as part of St Catherine University’s Women of Substance series, she distills texts, music and dances from black artists who thrived in the 1920s and beyond. She is backed by the Avery Sharpe Trio.
We caught up with her recently by phone.
Q: Where are you now?
A: I live in Atlanta. After 30 years of living between New York and L.A. I decided to come back to Atlanta. I can’t say voluntarily. I got divorced and my parents were like, “You need to come home. We can’t help you from out there.” I thought it would be six months, but it has been six years. There was something about coming home and being reminded of who I am that has been very healing. I did need that kind of love that didn’t include Hollywood.
Q: Atlanta is very different from Hollywood.
A: Very. In L.A., you’ll go to a party and you’ll see somebody you know, or don’t know, and they’ll ask you, “What are you doing now?” It doesn’t matter what you have done.
But in New York … it was always, “We knew you at your greatest moment.” I saw L.A. as a place of work, but I always felt my community was in New York and Atlanta. Hollywood is its own community, and it’s not a supportive one, it’s a disposable one. You become a wipe.
Q: And for you, that moment was a long one — the years you spent playing Whitley?
A: I was just doing my part. We had no idea that the show would become a phenomenon, that it would be on the air 25 years later. When we were on set, especially that first year, I was trying to do a job — to keep my job. A lot of people came through that show early on. What happened to Loretta Devine? They were on for a minute and then were gone. I wanted to work. So, I wasn’t thinking about anything else but doing a great job so I could continue to work.
Now, people come up to me and tell me that because of Whitley, this character, they went to college, to Spelman College. It’s had a very powerful, positive influence.
Q: Spelman College was the model for Hillman College, the fictitious setting of “A Different World.” That’s interesting, given that you have some connection to the real Spelman.
A: I grew up across from Morehouse and Spelman. My father [William Guy] was pastor of Friendship Baptist, the oldest black Baptist church in Atlanta. Spelman was founded in its basement. And Morehouse College held classes there early on. I grew up in that church, and they’re tearing it down now to make room for a stadium for the Falcons.
Q: Did Whitley trap you?
A: I’m nothing like her, but she’s given me this platform to be free. … But, no, we were not these bourgeois people. I was born in Boston, then moved to Atlanta at 8. I moved to New York after high school to study with Alvin Ailey on scholarship. I danced with Ailey’s third company, then second company. I did a tour of “Fame.”
What I learned from my training and my experience was that I had to do my work, work hard, no matter the character. And that’s what I did with Whitley, to create her.
Well, after I left the show I wanted to kill off Whitley. I did an indie movie, a movie about this dance-hall queen, called “Klash.” My agent was against me doing it. Everybody said no, but I did it anyway. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just about making the film, but distribution. And they didn’t have distribution.
Q: You shot it in Jamaica.
A: Yes, and when I first went there, I had to assure everyone that I would be respectful of the culture. And I worked hard to get the accent, to represent a real authentic dance-hall queen. And when we were shooting the love scene, everybody wanted to see. They were climbing the trees. And I said, “No, you got to clear the set.” It was deep.
But I love Jamaica, and wanted to honor the culture.
Q: What would people be surprised by when they meet you?
A: That I’m this deep, caring person. This show is about that. It’s about this great period in our history when we had all these writers like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, all these musicians and painters. It’s a moment of liberation, of achievement. “Raisin’ Cane” is a celebration of that. We didn’t just spring up from the civil rights movement. We go beyond Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King Jr.] to [Marcus] Garvey and [W.E.B.] Du Bois, to Zora [Neale Hurston] and Bessie [Smith].
Q: What can we expect?
A: Well, I perform with Avery Sharpe, a bad cat, one of the best bassists in the world. And we do music and poetry and stories. It’s not a straightforward theater show, but it’s one that’s a real celebration.
In TV and film, you have to condense everything into a one-liner. You say, “This movie is a black version of ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ ”Well, in theater, you have more freedom. And that’s what this piece is about. It’s really edutainment — entertaining education.
America wouldn’t be America without this period when black men, who had fought in World War I, were coming home to race riots. All that social tension eased in a place like Harlem.