It’s rare you hear a speech other than a eulogy that’s sad, beautiful, encouraging and unexpected all at the same time. I heard such a speech Saturday night from Jasmine Guy. She received a “Trailblazer Award” from University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program at a gala celebrating the program’s 20th anniversary. Ms. Guy had already received three proclamations from the city and state and didn’t expect to have to say anything more than the thank-yous she had already expressed, but Dr. Deana Thomas, the outgoing director of the AATP and a mother figure to whom everyone has trouble saying, “No,” waved Ms. Guy to the mic.
I wish I had recorded her words so you could hear the sincerity in her voice. She said she doesn’t feel like a trailblazer, and not only because she came after people like Alvin Ailey and Debbie Allen. Jasmine Guy feels much like the college theater students she watched and worked with throughout the weekend, the ones who don’t know if there will ever be a or another paid acting job for them. She said that at 51, she still doesn’t get the roles she wants or the ones she needs to support her teenage daughter. She expressed how it was a surprise to have to look so hard for work after A Different World when she knew the entire cast was talented, but it was different out there for black actors. She said she didn’t expect her life to be like this at 51 and that she didn’t want to do this (meaning the hustle and unsteadiness and rejection of an acting career) anymore and wanted to be a grownup.
When Ms. Guy stepped away from the mic for a few moments to wipe her eyes, Dr. Thomas showed her love. She told her she is a trailblazer because she’s demonstrating how to keep reinventing yourself to stay in the entertainment business. And she had an epiphany right there: Talent doesn’t make you famous. I think she knew that but had forgotten it.
As a writer who desires a writing career and not a hobby, this scene was depression-inducing. Guy’s experience made it apparent, again, that there likely is no end to either the gig lifestyle I struggled through before getting a full-time job, or the “I suck because I can’t find enough time to write to get all the suckiness out because I have a full-time job” life I live now. The likelihood of getting that one book published, selling it to enough people, and getting enough people to read it so more people will talk about it is a pretty low shot on its own, but maintaining momentum should that happen and being able to produce and produce and produce and live steadily and live well, long term, off of writing, is even more far-fetched.
But as a black woman, I found Dr. Thomas’s, and the crowd’s, reaction to this unexpected honesty encouraging. When Dr. Thomas told her that more people in that room knew Whitley Gilbert than they did any of Meryl Streep’s characters—and someone yelled, “Watch those reruns everyday, girl!”—it reminded me of the love and support black people need from and are capable of giving to one another. Dr. Thomas told Guy she had a home among us, the students, faculty and supporters of the AATP, and that was all this talented woman needed to know.