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Preview: Jasmine Guy climbs to “The Mountaintop” after coming back home to Atlanta

(Photo by Josh Lamkin)
Demetria McKinney and Danny Johnson in "The Mountaintop." (Photo by Josh Lamkin)

Actress and director Jasmine Guy lives by a pretty simple professional rule these days: if Kenny Leon asks her to do something, she does it. No questions are asked, even if she has doubts. So when Leon, artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company, asked her to direct the regional premiere of “The Mountaintop,” she consented, although she admits she was both “honored and overwhelmed” by the invitation.

Running through December 16 at the Southwest Arts Center, “The Mountaintop” is playwright Katori Hall’s fictional drama about an encounter between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Danny Johnson) and maid Camae (Demetria McKinney) at the Lorraine Motel the night before he was assassinated there in 1968.

After winning the 2012 Olivier Award for Best New Play following an acclaimed run in London, the play opened on Broadway last year with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, with Leon directing.

Guy saw the show on Broadway long before Leon asked her to get involved and was particularly taken with Hall’s re-imagining. “It’s fascinating that Katori could come up with this, this hypothetical about what it would be like the night before [King] is killed,” Guy says. “The conversations between the two characters are profound. She did her research.”

Holed up in the motel, King is in a tough time emotionally. “His life is in danger, and he is depressed and despondent,” says Guy. “He is nonviolent, but violence has happened last week and there is a weariness to him. He is working on a new speech, decides to order room service and finds this woman delightful.”

At first, it’s not clear exactly who Camae is. “There is some sexual tension between the two,” Guy explains. “She is a sister, a lover, a person to hang out with. She represents all of those women in the beginning. What she is there for becomes clear at the end.”

Jasmine Guy

Directing is a recent career twist for Guy, and she tries to learn from each outing. “I have directed five or six productions now, and each one teaches me something,” she says. “With this, I had to be sure and present King’s human side, with his flaws, so that what he did is that much greater.”

Finding her Camae for the play was easy. Guy knew she wanted to work with McKinney, a principal actress on “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” “She is so versatile and I knew she could do this.”

Finding her King proved more difficult. She put out a call for a number of actors, including some back in Los Angeles, but for various reasons none was able to do it. Crystal Fox, playing in the Alliance Theatre’s “What I Learned in Paris,” knew Guy was looking for a lead and suggested she come and watch some of that show, which co-starred Johnson. A few minutes in, Guy realized that he would be perfect. Immediately after “Paris” closed, Johnson flew home for a few days, then came back to Atlanta for “The Mountaintop.”

Guy grew up in Atlanta and went to the Northside Performing Arts High School, now known as North Atlanta High School. Later she moved to New York to study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and, years afterward, became known to millions playing Whitley Gilbert on “A Different World” for six seasons. She then continued to do television, film and theater, including a stint as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” on Broadway and in a national tour that came through Atlanta.

When she decided to leave Los Angeles and return to Atlanta in 2008, she was afraid she wouldn’t be as busy. In fact it has been the opposite. Besides all the work she’s done with True Colors and with other local theaters, Guy has finished an independent film and been seen in “The Vampire Diaries.” She feels that she is being employed now more than she would in Los Angeles. It’s also a better environment for her young daughter.

Once back in Atlanta, she landed a lead role in True Colors’ “Miss Evers’ Boys” in 2009, which she calls a career highlight. She had to age from 26 to 65 in the production, and Leon gave her the confidence to do so without “a single prop,” she recalls. That same year she directed her first play, True Colors’ production of “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” with a cast that included Robin Givens and Nicole Ari Parker. She also directed the musical inspired by King, “I Dream,” at the Alliance Theatre in 2010.

Working with Leon has given Guy’s career a jolt. “I knew about Kenny, and knew that he worked a lot with Phylicia [Rashad], who was managing TV, film and theater,” she says. “I wanted to do that. I approached him. When I moved here I got to do so much. He has given me some of the most artistically rewarding experiences I have ever had.”

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