From the back of the room, beyond a sea of braids, dreadlocks, and Afros, you can just about see her platinum-blond hair. She's tiny (five feet tall), but when Jada Pinkett slides on stage at New York City's Mama's Kitchen Indigo Blues to read her poetry, she's all voice. Whether it's the resonance of her words or the sexiness of her delivery isn't clear, but the crowd definitely approves. ''It's A Different World now!'' someone shouts. Indeed it is for the 23-year-old actress, who made her breakthrough three years ago as sassy freshman Lena James on the NBC sitcom.
This month, Pinkett made her fourth big-screen appearance as Peaches, the round-the-way sidekick to Keenen Ivory Wayans' private eye in A Low Down Dirty Shame (which has earned $21.5 million in its first three weeks). ''Peaches is raw,'' she says. ''She's got real long nails and major attitude. Givin' you straight ghetto. Ghetto vogue.'' It's a different role from the ice princesses she usually portrays and she wasn't so sure she could pull it off.
''Keenen (who wrote and directed Shame) knew. He busted my ass. I had to read twice, no three times, for him!'' says Pinkett. When the two were introduced by a friend, Wayans was riding the success of his TV show In Living Color and Pinkett hadn't acted professionally. ''I used to beg, 'Keenen, put me on your show, put me on your show.' And he was always like, 'No.''' Instead, ''he encouraged me to get off my lazy tail, get an agent, and do something.''
In other words, he encouraged her to do what she had wanted to do since she was a little girl in Baltimore: act. ''There was nothing else I could do, except maybe go to law school and pass the bar, so the courtroom would be my stage,'' she says. Pinkett earned a high school diploma at the Baltimore School of the Arts and did a year at North Carolina School of the Arts. Then, in 1991, she got the call from A Different World, where sassiness became her signature and helped her land roles in 1993's Menace II Society and this year's The Inkwell and Jason's Lyric.
Next month, she'll save the world from death and destruction in Ernest Dickerson's horror movie, Demon Knight, a role for which she cut off her hair save an inch and dyed it blond. She's hoping to segue back into the action genre with a still-secret project. ''I can't talk about it yet. Gotta keep it on the DL (down low), know what I'm sayin'?'' With all the buzz about her fierce performance in Shame, Pinkett won't stay a secret for very long.