At 54, she has had a varied career as a dancer, writer and singer as well as actress. But she remains best-known for her stint as college student Whitley Gilbert on the “Cosby Show” spin-off “A Different World” (which aired from 1987 to 1993), and was also enrolled in Spike Lee’s college comedy “School Daze.”
Now, decades later, she’s back in academia for “The Quad,” a new BET drama set at Georgia A&M. It premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST.
“That’s the third fictitious HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) I’ve been to,” says Guy with a smile. “And I have no paper to show for it!”
“The Quad” centers on ambitious, sexy Dr. Eva Fletcher, who, having hit a career bump, takes the job of president of troubled Georgia A&M, with her daughter, a rebellious entering freshman, in tow.
The college is riddled with problems, financial and otherwise. Worse, Eva — both a woman and a Northerner, not to mention her past scandalous affair with a grad student — is hardly greeted with open arms by members of the faculty and administration.
Anika Noni Rose plays Eva in a cast that also includes Peyton Alex Smith, Jazz Raycole, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Zoe Renee, Jake Allyn and Guy, who portrays Ella Grace, dean of the History Department and a sturdy Eva ally.
“‘The Quad’ deals with a newcomer put in charge who’s an outsider,” says Guy. “It also deals with politics in the academic world, and with issues the students face, like sexual assault.
“It’s a complicated time for young people in college. They feel powerful, like they own the world, and yet at the same time they’re scared to death.”
Born in Boston, Guy was 8 when the family moved to Atlanta (where she lives today with her teenage daughter). There her father, the Rev. William Guy, would serve as pastor of the historic Friendship Baptist Church, just steps from the Atlanta University complex, where “The Quad” is filmed.
From an early age, Guy was interested in dance, and, at 17, she moved to New York to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Her TV career began with a role as a dancer in the 1982 musical series “Fame” under the direction of choreographer Debbie Allen.
Over the years, she made guest appearances on “Melrose Place,” ”Living Single” and “Touched By an Angel,” and was a regular on the Showtime comedy “Dead Like Me.”
She has appeared onstage, including her one-woman show, “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey,” which celebrates the creative and political ferment of Harlem in the 1920s. And she published a biography of activist (and mother of Tupac Shakur) Afeni Shakur.
Has it been hard to be so multi-faceted?
“When I’m doing one thing, I totally focus on it,” she explains. “I want to be judged in each of these different arenas against the best. I don’t want to hear ‘Oh, she can sing — for a DANCER,’ or ‘She can write — for an ACTOR.’
“I think that I am not great at any one thing, but I’m great at being good at a LOT of things.”
Even so, talk of Jasmine Guy’s accomplishments inevitably leads back to “A Different World.” And she remembers it fondly not only because it was a roaring success, but also because it put across important lessons, with laughs, to its audience.
“We were able to take very serious issues and still be funny and entertaining in a series the network could promote as a sitcom,” she says a little wistfully. “We had a great time doing the show. I miss having that platform, and miss having that character to use — and hide behind!”