(Jasmine Guy is an award-winning actress, director, singer and choreographer. She is best known for her starring role as Whitley Gilbert in the 1980s Black television sitcom A Different World. She is presently directing the musical “I Dream”, which is dedicated to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I went one-on-one with her about the impact of the musical, their Broadway ambitions, Dr. King’s impact on her life and her next moves as a director.)
Jesse Muhammad (JM): First, thank you so much for the time and I am honored to be interviewing an actress that I grew up watching and still watch on my A Different World DVDs.
Jasmine Guy (JG): Thank you so much for interviewing and watching. (Laughs)
JM: Growing up in Atlanta, what did you learn about Dr. Martin Luther King in your household?
JG: Martin Luther King was a part of the fabric of our history. I learned about Dr. King like I learned about Abraham Lincoln. I grew up watching documentaries about the civil rights struggle and saw footage of the students protesting for equal rights. So I was very well aware of Dr. King, especially here in Atlanta because he is our son. You grow up with his image in your heart and your head. You know his family. You know where he went to church. He is very dear to us. When I was asked to do the musical, the responsibility to tell his story and who he was as a man and a human being was most important.
This was a person who did something extraordinary but not something we couldn’t do ourselves. And I think that is the inspiration of the story. We have to continue to be motivated and change the world. It may not be like the 60s but there are still other ways we can do better for other people and ourselves.
JM: When did you get approached to be the director of “I Dream”? What influenced you the most to want to direct this musical drama?
JG: Douglas Tappin is the composer and creator of this piece. He’s been working on it for the past five years. When he played me some of the music from the show that’s when I thought “I’m down. I want to go on this ride with you all”. Then we began to cast. We have thirty-five people in the cast. There are phenomenal singers and the music really comes alive. Sometimes I tell people it is an opera. The music in the piece is R&B, gospel and classic. It’s like a huge orchestral triumph of Dr. King’s life.
Even Rev. (Joseph) Lowery said he has never seen Dr. King’s life put to music before and we definitely put it to music with “I Dream”.
JM: In your illustrious career you have worked with many actors, producers, and musical directors. Describe what it is like to work with this group and why it is the right combination.
JG: The creative team was put together by Lisa Watson. That includes the composer, myself, the producers, set designer, and costumers. We all really reached back into our archives and found a way to do this with a contemporary flavor but still reminiscent of the 60s. Well actually this piece goes back as far as 1938. We have a lot of time to travel, but I think we do it in a very fresh and contemporary way.
JM: The history of Dr. King is a very rich and delicate story to Black people and particularly Atlanta. While directing this, did you personally have the slightest bit of nervousness that the King family and companions of Dr. King might not like it? Describe how you felt on the opening night.
JG: There was definitely a lot of trepidation. When we, the cast, sang songs for Rev. (Bernice) King before we went out to rehearsals we were anxious to know what she thought. The most emotional thing that happened for me was knowing we were talking about her parents. Since this was her mommy and daddy it made us much more emotional when we sung those songs for her. It wasn’t just “This is where Dr. King sings this” or “This is where Coretta comes in”. Of course we wanted her (Rev. Bernice King’s) approval. We wanted to know we were presenting her parents in a positive way, and I think we did that.
JG: People have been moved. When I am in the lobby during intermission, people tell me how many times they cried. They have told me that they did not expect a show like this. They are very excited about a piece like this about one of our heroes--a piece also done in a way that can go to Broadway. A lot of people are asking, “When ya’ll going to Broadway”. We got the response we wanted emotionally, and they want it in other cities. I’m excited. I want to do a tour and do it all around the world, because Dr. King is a son of the whole human race. I want to make sure we get this out to the whole world.
JM: What is your response to those who might say “We don’t need another Dr. King story”? What sets this musical apart from some of the other films that have been dedicated to the life of the civil rights leader?
JG: This story is told as a musical and that has never been done before. A lot of the footage that we see and the movies we have seen are kind of documentary formats with a lot of facts. This musical has a little more creativity, and we’ve taken more license to show maybe the struggles that were going on in the life of Dr. King when he was making the civil rights moves we all know about. It’s done in a fresh way so I think it’s accessible to young people. I was very aware of reaching many generations and not turning off our younger people. I want them to look at the musical, remember many parts, go look it up and know more about the history.
JM: In addition to “I Dream”, what new ventures can your fans look forward to from you in the coming years? Do you have any plans to go into directing movies?
JG: I’m working toward film. I would like to direct a film next. Directing has been God’s gift to me, because I really wasn’t seeking it. I just said “Yes” when the opportunities have come to me. I’ve grown to really love it as an art form. I’ve learned more about what I’m doing so I think I’m ready to direct a film.
That means the next time you interview me I will be promoting the film I will have directed.
JM: You speaking it into existence. Now that’s what I’m talking about right there! (Laughs)
JM: My final question is what is can you break down the difference and feel of being “Whitley Gilbert” in front of the camera versus Jasmine Guy behind the camera or in the director’s chair?
JG: There’s certainly a difference in being an actress and performer versus being a director. As a director, I’m thinking about everybody. As a performer I was worried about my own stuff, whatever that may have been. So I think as a director you have more of a parental perspective than when you’re just acting on the other side.
JM: Wonderful. Thank you so much Ms. Guy for your time.
JG: You’re welcome Jesse. Anytime!
(“I Dream" is the first major stage production in America portraying Atlanta's iconic civil rights leader starring Quentin Earl Darrington (Dr. King) and Demetria McKinney (Coretta Scott King). The world premiere took place on July 9 and is being previewed until July 31 at Alliance Stage at Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, GA. For more information on getting tickets log on to www.idreaminatlanta.com. Go support!)