Byline: Dana Wood
NEW YORK — They’re a touch sweeter than those cross-dressing “Rocky Horror” groupies, but the pint-size Pink Ladies sitting in the audience shocked Jasmine Guy just the same. Prior to taking the role of Rizzo, she says, she was clueless about America’s deep-seated obsession with “Grease.”
“It was a revelation to me that all those little-bitty kids have been watching the movie version all these years,” Guy says. “Because I sure haven’t. I haven’t even thought about ‘Grease’ since it came out.”
Suffice it to say, she’s thinking about it now. After signing on with the national tour company last fall, Guy is currently hoofing it on Broadway, bringing her own stamp to a role previously filled by Brooke Shields, Rosie O’Donnell and Sheena Easton.
“I’m having a ball,” she says. “When I was on the road, I didn’t know anybody in any of the cities we went to. But now that I’m in New York, so many people are coming to the show. Ex-boyfriends have been dropping notes — ‘I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”‘
Although she doesn’t like to dwell on the hit musical’s deeper meanings — it’s bad for her acting if she starts to do that, she says — Guy has several well-hatched theories as to why it’s so popular.
“‘Grease’ is ‘Nick at Nite,”‘ she says. “‘Grease’ is camp. It’s a fantasy to think that high school was really like that, like Rydell, and all you had to do was pick your favorite greaser and put a sweater or leather jacket on.”
Apart from “Grease” and a six-year run as super-snot Whitley Gilbert on television’s “A Different World,” Guy’s professional taste runs to much heavier fare. In April, she’ll appear in “The Perfect Crime: The Joanna Jensen Story,” a USA Network television drama about the murder of a black woman married to a white Marine. She is also, through her own production company, developing the story of Afeni Shakur, mother of the murdered rapper Tupac and a founding member of the Black Panthers.
“She’s a fascinating woman,” Guy says of Shakur. “And I just asked her one day if she would mind doing a movie of her life. Or at least a part of her life — I don’t like biopics that cover so much information that you don’t get a real feeling about the person. I really just want to focus on her years as a Panther.
“I want to know what makes her tick, and what would make a woman join the Panthers. It’s such a different perspective than any of the Panther men I’ve read about.”
Shakur is just one black woman whose story Guy is eager to tell. Her wish list is expansive, ranging from former slave Harriet Tubman to Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, both of whom became major Hollywood stars even though the roles available to them were limited. “I see universal themes in all of these women’s lives,” she says. “And I think it’s important to find that. You have to find that humanity that everyone can relate to.”
Still, it’s the issue of racism, and the struggle to overcome it, that most intrigues Guy — particularly in Dandridge’s case.
“I know every [black] actress wants to do her story,” she concedes. “It should be done, and hopefully it will be.
“Dorothy was accepted as one of the most beautiful screen actresses of her day,” Guy adds. “But there were no films for her. No men for her to touch. No one to make love to. She was almost created with nowhere to go. Like Frankenstein.”