My first recollection of Jasmine Guy goes back to my childhood, spotting her as a featured dancer in TV’s “Fame” in several episodes of the popular 80s musical drama about a New York performing arts high school.From a background dancer on TV’s “Fame” and a six-time NAACP Image Award-winning starring role as Whitley Gilbert, the sassy, outspoken, southern charmer from the Cosby-spinoff, “A Different World”–on more recent roles in the critically acclaimed “Dead Like Me” and fan favorite, “The Vampire Diaries”, actress/singer/dancer Jasmine Guy has been an entertainment force to be reckoned with just about as long as she’s been alive. For the better part of the last decade, between her film and TV roles, Guy has hit the road from time to time to star on-stage in “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey”, alongside jazz great, Avery Sharpe and The Avery Sharpe Trio. Written and conceived by Harry Clark, with original music composed by Sharpe, Guy leads the audience on a musical journey exploring the historic post-World War I years of the 1920s and 30s, a time in American history when black artists from all genres, whether it be the written word, music, performing or visual arts, came together in New York’s Harlem neighborhood to celebrate and elevate themselves, their art, their culture, and in doing so, solidified their rightful place in a new era of creativity, the era now referred to as The Harlem Renaissance.
On Friday, February 24, Guy and company bring their latest multi-city tour of “Raisin’ Cane” to a close as the stop in for a one-night-only performance in Nashville at TPAC‘s Polk Theatre. A lifelong fan of Guy’s, I am thrilled and honored that she took time from her busy scheduled on the road to participate in my latest Rapid Fire Q&A in which she opens up about the show, her introduction to The Harlem Renaissance and aspects of her career.
Rapid Fire with Jasmine Guy, currently headlining “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: From my research in preparing to chat with you, I understand you were already a fan of “Cane”, Jean Toomer’s collection of short stories, poems and narratives that inspired playwright Harry Clark to create “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey”. When did you first read “Cane” and what are you thoughts on the time period and the show itself?
JASMINE GUY: I had been exposed to the book, and other literature from the period, by my parents. This is a dream show for me in that I get to play so many roles and to interpret what is some of this country’s greatest poets and writers’ works. My longtime friend and colleague, the great jazz musician Avery Sharpe, wrote all the original music for the show and introduced me to the piece. I quickly fell in love with the show’s ability to provide a look into this vibrant period for African-American artists, most of whom could be found in Harlem in the 1920s. I love the wardrobe from that time too; it was a time when people were really taking their place in society and strutting their stuff.
JP: Throughout your career, you’ve proven yourself a true triple threat, excelling as actress/singer/dancer. Is that label daunting, or empowering?
JASIME GUY: Oh, it is definitely empowering, because it simply means to me that I reach for all the tools in my creative toolbox to tell stories and express myself.
JP: Growing up, your Mom had been a teacher and your Dad, a pastor. Was there music in your home as a young girl?
JASMINE GUY: Oh, yes. And in church, of course. But more than that, there were conversations in our home about the arts, literature and all creative forms of expression. We were encouraged at an early age.
JP: You moved from Atlanta to New York where you studied dance at the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Was that the beginning of the ‘Jasmine Renaissance’?
JASMINE GUY: I wouldn’t call it a Renaissance, since that would be a revival and, for me, dancing with Ailey was just another big leap (pardon the pun) forward in my evolution as an artist. However, it was during this time when I really opened myself up to other forms of artistic expression like acting and singing.
JP: In my intro to our conversation, I fanboy about remembering you as a dancer on a handful of episode of “Fame”. Can you tell me a little about your time on that show?
JASMINE GUY: It was hard, hard work and tremendous fun. We were not much further along than the kids we were portraying, and the energy that ran through that company was truly electric. We were getting to do what we loved, and were getting to share that on TV. Wow.
JP: While the Harlem Renaissance is indeed a celebration of the creative explosion within the black community, its impact and legacy reaches far beyond. Do you think it’s safe to say we wouldn’t have more modern creative forces like Spike Lee, Alice Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat and April Sinclair were it not for those who made a name for themselves during the Harlem Renaissance?
JASMINE GUY: We always stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and these artists, poets, singers, writers, dancers, actors and visual artists stepped out of the shadows and into the sunlight with their gifts at a time when it was rare for African Americans to do so. They gave the next generation some very big shoulders on which to stand.
JP: From what I understand, the show itself is unique in that it isn’t a straight forward musical, or play, but more of a sharing of the history. What’s your favorite aspect of this format?
JASMINE GUY: I love that it is not one thing, but rather a bringing together of so many art forms to share the spirit of this vibrant artistic movement in a way that, hopefully, brings that spirit to life for the audience.
JP: As the name implies, the Harlem Renaissance primarily took place in and around the mostly black neighborhood of Harlem in New York’s Manhattan borough. But the affect was far-reaching, influencing creatives in Paris as well. Does the show touch upon that aspect of the movement?
JASIME GUY: It does, inasmuch as the influence of those poets and writers and musicians and other artists did. The Harlem Renaissance was, as you point out, an international movement, and while we don’t specifically “set” this piece in any one location, it is also universal I think.
JP: You share the stage with a talented group of musicians, the Avert Shape Trio, lead, of course by Avery Sharpe, who also composed the show’s original score. Over the years, have you developed an unspoken language, a connection with the band?
JASMINE GUY: Of course. Yes, they are a band and I am not a member of that band, but in the larger sense we are all performing this piece together. Whether actor, dancer or musician, when you work on stage together, it is your shared language that moves you together through each performance.
JP: Is there a moment in the show when the trio is playing an instrumental piece that you truly find yourself lost in the music?
JASMINE GUY: Several. My favorite will be obvious to all who come to see the show, I think. It’s a longer piece in which I get to perform in the discipline that first brought me to the stage … dance.
JP: Nashville’s audience gets the chance to see the show, not only during Black History Month, but during a very volatile time in our nation’s history. If there’s one thing you hope audiences take away from “Raisin’ Cane” to not only continue the legacy of this creative history, but to improve upon the current social injustice in the U.S., what would that be?
JASMINE GUY: Mainly, I hope people are entertained. All the poetry, music and dance from that period is really unique, colorful and exuberant. If they get to learn a bit about this groundbreaking period in our arts history, that’s great too. But it is really about embracing this outpouring of creative energy that dominated that time in our community. As for the present, like most of us, I hope for understanding between all of us, support for those of us who need it most, and courage to stand up for what is right.
JP: What’s next for the show…and you?
JASMINE GUY: Hopefully, more opportunities to tell rich stories that audiences can enjoy and relate to, through this and other stage, film and television work.
“Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey” plays TPAC’s Polk Theatre Friday, February 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range in price from $40 to $60. Click Here to purchase tickets. Click Here for more information about “Raisin’ Cane”. To keep up with what’s next at TPAC, follow Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest edition of Rapid Fire featuring my conversation with “Raisin’ Cane” star Jasmine Guy, Click Here to check out previous interviews. Be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.