When Dame-Jasmine Hughes takes the stage, she takes no prisoners. Marrying charisma, craft and fearlessness, she demands the audience go there with her — wherever “there” might be, emotionally and spiritually.
It could be digging under the complicated scars of a drug dealer (“Sunset Baby”), or the damaged psyche of a stripper (“Pussy Valley”), or a seen-it-all-before slave (“An Octoroon”) or a same-sex lover wondering where the fire has gone (“Bright Half Life”).
Now Hughes will turn a New York spotlight onto one of the Twin Cities stages she has commanded for the past three years. This spring she won an Obie Award for her portrayal of a vengeful sister in “Is God Is,” Aleshea Harris’ Afropunk spaghetti western revenge comedy, which premiered in February at the bold off-Broadway company Soho Rep.
“Jasmine has the deepest emotional well of actors I know,” said her mentor Nataki Garrett, who has directed Hughes in two productions at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis — and will add a third when “Is God Is” opens there next Friday.
Hughes plays Racine, one of twin sisters who were wronged at birth. Now orphans, they’re out to seek justice, and revenge. In a rave review, the New York Times praised her performance, calling Racine “an insolent, lip-smacking extrovert, to whom violence comes almost naturally.”
“The thing about these characters is that they’re really angry, and that’s something rare to see onstage,” said Garrett. “The world seeks to destroy women who’re angry, and there’s a deeper fear about black women’s anger.”
Hughes is accustomed to playing edgy, serious characters, but she finds Racine refreshing.
“She is bold, reckless and unconcerned with respectability politics — what people think of her,” Hughes said. “She’s blinded by purpose. But most of all, she’s unapologetically black and Southern.”
What does that mean?
“She validates her own feelings, as radical as they are, and she exists outside of the white gaze,” said Hughes. “I’m not saying: ‘Go out there and develop crazy, extremist values that hurt people or marginalize people.’ But if you treat people right [and] you’re self-actualizing and living in your purpose, then hell yeah, you can have radical ideas.”
Authenticity and passion
As Hughes rhapsodizes about her character, it’s clear she could be talking about herself.
She identifies strongly with Racine’s authenticity, her drive and her oversized passions. And, like Racine, she’s had to navigate a feeling that somehow she may not be wanted or cherished by the world.
She was raised by her grandparents, who owned radio stations in the Mississippi Delta.
“For me, playing her is not about intellectualizing who she is,” said Hughes. “It’s feeling all her emotions fully — that anger, that rage, that blinding desire for justice. At the root of who she is there’s a desire to not be stepped on. She wants to be valued, to have agency and power.”
Fans in the Twin Cities, which she has called home on and off for three years, have witnessed Hughes’ own maturation in real time. Like most actors, she gets frustrated by rejection, which is a fact of life in a profession in which casting is not just about talent, but also chemistry, directorial vision and a host of other variables. Still, she marvels at her journey.
Although she was first rejected by CalArts for graduate school, she moved to California anyway and was admitted a year later. After graduate school, she relocated to New York and got cast in shows. But one role was totally unplanned: motherhood.
She returned to Mississippi with her baby, Brooklyn, and ended up teaching school, thinking her stage dreams were dead. But two years into motherhood, Garrett, who taught Hughes at CalArts, invited her to Minneapolis to play the lead in the world premiere of “Pussy Valley,” Katori Hall’s play about workers in a strip club.
Hughes slayed the part, and the second stage of her growth commenced.
“The Twin Cities have been very nurturing for me,” she said. “Living here has built my confidence in ways that have allowed me to go all over the country and do work. I went to CalArts as this raw talent from Mississippi who didn’t know how to theoretically or critically approach work.”
Garrett said Hughes’ strengths include “this ability to transform and mutate herself into the detail of her character so that she finds new things in even a part she’s played before. ... Now she’s got a level of maturity where she knows that there’s strength in restraint.”
For Hughes, playing Racine at Mixed Blood is not just about deepening the character she played in New York, but also showing gratitude to a place that has helped her become the artist she is.
“I came to the Twin Cities to develop my craft and now I’m almost elitist about Minneapolis and St Paul,” she said. “I tell people on the coasts that here, I work. I make my living acting. And they don’t really believe it.”