Best known for playing African-American Southern belle Whitley Gilbert on the sitcom "A Different World," Jasmine Guy is rapidly turning into a ubiquitous presence in Atlanta theater. In just over a year, she's appeared in Swimming Upstream, Miss Evers' Boys and Blues for an Alabama Sky at True Colors Theatre. She's currently directing Janece Shaffer's Brownie Points for Theatrical Outfit, playing Feb. 3-28. Born in Boston but raised in Atlanta, she talks about keeping busy in her hometown.
On Blues for an Alabama Sky's opening night, Kenny Leon introduced the show and mentioned you'd soon be directing For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. He said "We're putting Jasmine Guy to work!"
Absolutely! And they did! Once I decided to move here, Kenny told me, "OK: Miss Evers!" So I read it and did that, and then the others. Getting all those roles was like divine intervention; it's like falling into this kind of rhythm. It really felt right to be back in Atlanta, which has reconnected me with my art. Coming here reconnected me first with my family, then with my art, now my business, since I have to line up work.
Why did you decide to move here?
I wasn't working enough in L.A., and kept leaving L.A. to work. When my daughter was younger, I had no issue with taking her out of preschool, since I know my colors and my ABCs, and could teach her those. But once she got older – she's 10 years old now – I had to decide what's the best lifestyle for her. Atlanta is easier for transportation, money, food, rent, jobs. And I found it more loving, more embracing. Because I grew up here, I knew what will happen for a young person who lives here. I found L.A. to be a more separate city, and I hated that separation. I want her to grow up around all kinds of people.
What's Brownie Points about?
It's about five women who take their daughters on a camping trip, and the mother in charge puts the two black mothers in the kitchen the whole weekend. So the characters wonder, was that racially motivated, or subconsciously racially motivated? And some of the characters cannot not talk about these issues. Some say, "Let's just have a good time and play music," and others say, "I can't leave this cabin without knowing you know where I'm coming from." But the play's not just about that. It's mostly about how we deal with who we are as women and who we are as mothers. What I love about Janece's writing is that here we have three white women and two black women, and none are the same. We don't have a monolithic way of thinking. All white people aren't the same, and all black women don't have attitude and a "sistah girl" coming out of them.
Since you've worked so much in theater, television and film, do you think theater is the best for airing difficult subject matter?
I think theater is the place to voice our current issues in our society. I think TV copies it. Movies may push the envelope, but it first starts in theater. In my opinion, Broadway lost our political voice. The freshness of a theatrical outlet has been lost. It took the safe route with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Disney, but it might be coming back to it. I'm sad when shows closed like Taboo, compared to shows that chose a safer, more commercial way. But Broadway might becoming more daring again.
"A Different World" was a spin-off of "The Cosby Show," and I was wondering when you first met Bill Cosby.
Mr. Cosby was on the East Coast doing his show, and we were on the West Coast. The first time I met Bill Cosby was at his house, after we'd done the first season. I was so excited and wanted to say so much, but all I did was laugh! Because he was funny! Not everyone who's funny onstage is funny off it. I don't know what he thought of me, but he did talk about the value of my character and the value of my show.
How many episodes of "A Different World" did you write?
I wrote three; one about the value of literature, when Dwayne Wayne, a math major, learned the importance of reading. The second was about the Gulf War, about a person in the reserves who got called up. I wrote it before the war broke out, then we went to war after I submitted it, which pushed it up on the schedule. Blair Underwood was in that. And I wrote one in year six when Whitley and Dwayne were married and she felt she wasn't getting enough attention. She called Montel Williams and her friends at the dorm recognized her voice and knew her business. I think our better episodes, like the AIDS episode, the date rape episode, gave us something to be funny from.
People might ask you this all the time, but what do you think Whitley would be doing today?
No one's asked me that – they always ask if there's going to be a reunion show. I didn't create the character, and a lot of times I fought the writers against things I thought were corny, but they won and the audience loved those things. This is only my opinion, but I do think they'd still be married, and would've had two or three kids. But by now the kids would be leaving home, and she'd be dealing with "Who am I now that the children are gone?"
Do you go camping? How outdoorsy are you?
I was thinking about that on my way here. My kid wants me to take her camping, but I think "Please don't make me camp!" I don't like certain things about the outdoors. People tell me that it's so calming to be in nature, but I think I would be freaked out. I don't like rodents, and my biggest fear is opossums. I know they're not rodents – they're marsupials, they have pouches. But they look like big rats to me, and I dealt with rats enough when I lived in New York.