Interview: ‘A Different World’ Star Speaks On Show’s Legacy 30 Years Later
To the naked eye, it seems like there are so many occurrences in 2017 that have never happened before. However, the U.S. in 1987 has a few glaring comparisons to today. The President was also a former celebrity, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Maine, and there was a march on Washington D.C. calling for equal rights of a marginalized group.
Another similarity was the onslaught of self-love in the black community. While social media has helped coin terms such as #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackBoyJoy, it was television and movies made for us/by us during the 1980s that started it all.
Take A Different World for example. The show highlighted college students attending the fictional Hillman, where they not only attempted to navigate growing up to be affluent, black adults, but they also tackled situations that anyone- regardless of skin color- could encounter in life, such as sexual assault, discrimination and more.
Thirty years ago Sunday (Sept. 24), the show premiered on NBC, and was slated to be a spinoff of the beloved The Cosby Show. As we know, it took on a life of its own, and has become paramount to the movement of black self-love, acceptance, and just trying to figure it out. Additionally, the show set the stage for HBCU’s, which didn’t have the platform to showcase their importance previously.
Dawnn Lewis, who played no-nonsense (but still cool AF) Jaleesa Vinson-Taylor, believes that A Different World’s legacy lies in the lessons it taught its viewers. In the show, Jaleesa went from being the roommate of Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and Maggie Lauten (Marisa Tomei) to the wife of Colonel Bradford Taylor who held her own as a boss in her own right throughout. We watched her grow and learn about herself, as well as offer sage-like advice to her younger friends who were also trying to figure it out.
Much like A Different World conveys the importance of personal growth, the real Ms. Lewis has continued to do just that. After hanging up her cap and gown as a Hillman student, Lewis has been seen in shows such as the CW’s iZombie, and is in her fourth season on TNT’s Major Crime. Her voice can also be heard on animated series like Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego and Doc McStuffins. She also eagerly awaits the release of her latest film, The Revival, written and produced by The Blacklist star Harry Lennix.
The Grammy Award-winning singer is also the founder and president of the non-profit “A New Day Foundation,” which provides financial and programmatic support to underprivileged and underserved youth and grassroots community based non profit organizations. She also finds time to teach master classes and give motivational lectures around the country, mentoring hundreds of young people along the way.
“Yes, I did A Different World, but this is who I’ve grown to be,” she tells VIBE about life after the show. “There’s no limit if you’re willing to do the work, live and participate on a level of excellence. Go ahead and do that thing.”
We chopped it up with Lewis over-the-phone about the 30th anniversary of the show, the impactful episodes throughout its six-season run, and its incredible legacy on television.
VIBE: How did you get involved with ‘A Different World’?
Dawnn Lewis: Just like any young actor, you audition. You hear about auditions and you do your best to get into the audition. You want to be a part of a project because, one, you hear it’s going to be a good project, and two, because you want to work! All we knew at the time was that it was going to be a spinoff of The Cosby Show, which, at the time, was the most successful television show on the air. It was something we definitely wanted to be a part of.
I was in a Broadway show at the time, The Tap Dance Kid, and the same casting director that cast The Cosby Show, cast the Broadway show I was currently doing. I was actually out on the road doing the national tour, and I heard that they were doing a new series, and I asked the casting director for three months about getting to audition. They kept telling me ‘no.’
After three months, they finally called me back. I was down to my last unemployment check, the Broadway show had closed, and they finally called me back. Not even an hour after they called me, the gentleman who was the music director for The Cosby Show called me and said he was interested in seeing if I wanted to work with him on the theme song of “this new spinoff of The Cosby Show.” I thought it was my friends playing a joke on me, because to get both those calls within the same hour, when I was told ‘no’ for three months? He sent me over a rough copy [of the music], told me the concept of the show. I called the casting director back and confirmed I would be there, and I fell on my knees, started praying and thanking God.
I listened to the track; it was this funky, R&B type song. Originally, the name of the show was gonna be “Stepping Up To Step Out,” so I wrote the song with that concept in mind. The short of the long story is that in a week-and-a-half, I had auditioned for and booked a co-star spot on the new Cosby spinoff, I had co-written and recorded the theme song for it, and it wasn’t discovered by the production company until the next week, at my final meeting with Mr. Cosby- they realized I was the same person. They hired the same person to do both jobs! At that point, I was no longer gonna be singing the theme song, because they figured that was too much attention on me, and it wasn’t my show. It went through the round of “‘who do we get to sing the song?'” They had Al Green come in first to record it, so I’m in the recording studio teaching Al Green my song. “‘No, no, no Al, it goes like this!'” [laughs].
What were some of the lessons that you think ‘A Different World’ taught the black community, more specifically, black youth?
As human beings, we find ourselves wearing this brave face, but we can be our own worst enemies with insecurities and doubt. When I went in for that audition, I was the only person in the room I didn’t recognize. I’d seen [the girls at the audition] on TV and commercials, and I thought, “‘What I am doing here? I’m not what you see on TV.'” But by the grace of God, I did what I had to do, and I did it.
If you tie that into the premise of the show, that’s what the show is about. It’s about stepping up, taking a chance on you, being true to yourself. You can’t quit on you, because if you do, you can’t expect anybody else to pick you up and do it for you. Whether it’s that you don’t read as well, you don’t speak that well, you don’t feel as pretty as someone else, you’re not as thin, you’re too thin…whatever that negative spin it is you have on yourself. You’ve got to dig deep and recognize that you are who you are.
This is why I believe that the show is relevant and resonates with young people today. Those questions for humanity really just don’t change, especially for our teens today. There’s so many distractions out there stimulating us constantly. It’s easy to say that you’ve got all this knowledge at your disposal, but you may not know how to put it together. A Different World allowed you to see that you can make it to college and still not have it all figured out. “How do I have a more realistic perspective on relationships? On society? Where do I fit? What works, what doesn’t work?”
Even though it was 30 years ago, it seems like the show also does a really good job at conveying these newer concepts of “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Boy Joy” that have been playing out on social media.
I agree with you. I don’t necessarily agree that they’re newer concepts, though. I think those are newer tags for this generation of millennials that are going through this process now. But as people in this country, generation after generation, we’ve been trying to encourage ourselves as adults to see the beauty and the value of who we are in the mix of this country who historically denies who we are, and our contributions to the arts, to society, to history, to architecture, to science. Every generation has had that voice, that spiritual thing that says “black girl, you are beautiful, you matter. Black boy, you are powerful, you are a leader.” I think that the hashtags are new, but the sentiment is foundational. I think that’s why it still resonates 30 years later, because I don’t think those messages will ever become obsolete. However you want to title it, so be it. Make it work for you, because it does fit you. It is yours, it is ours.
The show also tackles some pretty important social topics, such as discrimination, sexual assault, the AIDS epidemic. What do you think is the episode that has really stood the test of time?
Wow. There’s a few actually. The “Mammy” episode, where on the one hand, we want to embrace our blackness, but there are things about our blackness that caused shame. Some people look at it as shame, and others look at it as empowerment. Now, we have to deal with the N-word, and we see images of sagging pants and all those kinds of things where, depending on what perspective you take of it, you look at it as ‘this is embarrassing.’ Some people say that they say it [the N-word] as taking back the power of the word, but if someone else were to say that word to you of a different race, or made a comment on the way you look or dress, it brings offense. It’s a double-edged sword, so I think that episode really rings true, particularly with our young people today.
How do you think the public would have reacted today to a more intense episode of ‘A Different World’ if it aired in 2017, such as the AIDS episode?
Well, some of the storylines that we covered back then were more delicate than they are today. I think we’ve become a bit desensitized to certain things. We are still very strongly impacted by these topics, but it’s not as shocking, not as much of a mystery now as it was then. [In the 80s and 90s] we were still trying to figure out ‘How do you catch AIDS? Who gets or doesn’t get AIDS? Is it your fault?’
Then, the things that were allowed to be shown on television were very different. In the AIDS episode that you are speaking of, we couldn’t even show a condom on the show. It was against standards and practices to hold up a condom. We had to refer to it in our pocket or in our purse. Now, you see full nudity on primetime TV, you hear cursing and folks saying all kinds of things on primetime TV. That just was not the way back then. I think the mystery of some of the things that we were speaking about then is not the same as it is now. I don’t know if it would be received the same way. I would hope it would be, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people were like ‘whatever, it’s that, whatever, it’s this.’ Becoming desensitized to certain things is really not a good thing.
What issues do you think ‘A Different World’ would tackle today if the show was still on?
Oh goodness! We tackled politics back then, we tackle politics now. Politics has become our news now, not about what’s happening in communities, in society, it’s politics. Politics affects absolutely everything in today’s discussion, which is kind of frightening, because you lose the humanity of who we are as people, and the power that we have will affect our reality. Now you feel like you’re at the hands and mercy of people you will never meet. You’re sorry that they are where they are, but they are there, and you have to deal with them, you know?
Do you ever think there’s going to be a show like ‘A Different World’ on television ever again?
I know that there are shows now that are dealing with the young adult experience in the arena of education, shows like The Yard, Dear White People, those shows that are in the environment of education and young people trying to figure it out. I think there is an attempt…it’s not always a revealing attempt, I don’t know that it’s always inspirational.
A lot of the activities that are shown in those programs are very real about what’s happening on campuses with our young people today. Again, I think that comes with just being desensitized. It’s very real, and it’s very, very different. The work I do with young people through my foundation is to create an opportunity and support for those who are hoping to have a different result today than they did yesterday, and to me, A Different World was able to instill that kind of message, heart and sense of “love thy neighbor.”
When you look back on the show in terms of what it did for the black community, how do you feel about being a part of something so impactful?
It’s really humbling in all honesty. I don’t take it for granted. It’s been really, really humbling, it’s been empowering. You asked me how I got into it in the first place; for me, I was just trying to get my next job. I was trying to do what I do as a performer and professional. You’re looking for your next job, and when it started, it was just a job.
When we started going through the process, we started to realize the effect that it had on those watching the show. That’s not just black, young adults- it was Latinos, Asians, Caucasians, Europeans, older people, little kids. It was amazing and remarkable, the response that we got from that show.
It was something for everybody. There were so many different characters on the show that people watched for different reasons. Some people watched just to see Mr. Gaines in the pit, because they saw themselves. They saw themselves as the person in the kitchen, the person in the library, the person who worked security who was part of the fabric of these young people. They worked and did what they could to support, to inspire, to enlighten, to protect. There were people who watched for my character, who didn’t want to quit on themselves and went back to school, tried a new career. ‘If Jaleesa can do it, I can do it.’
The show had so many facets that are inspiring to so many people, and the fact that it is still doing that all this time later is bananas. I do master classes and motivational speaking around the world, and I go and see these people who show up at my seminars and master classes dressed as someone on the show. They’ve shown me different videos that their schools have made as recruitment tools, reenacting our opening credits! Using the backdrops of some of the classes on their campus to show why it’s important for them to brace themselves for “a different world” by coming to their university. It’s mind-blowing to me. There’s Hillman websites where you can get paraphernalia. They have more stuff than we’ve ever had on the show. I don’t have a Hillman sweatshirt, notebook cover, pens or pencils! [laughs] It’s incredible. And then ESPN recreated the opening credits, it was like, are you kidding me?! That was off the chain! It was so much fun, we had such a good time, and it’s such an honor.
As a child growing up, it was my habit to return to my Elementary and High School to visit my favorite teachers and to share stories of my journey to the students that were there. After A Different World aired, I would continue to visit my high school, the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and the Performing Arts, the difference now being, while I’m in the hallway with a teacher…all of a sudden, I start hearing people cheering “Oh my God, it’s Jaleesa!” All of these kids flooded the hallways to try to speak to me, and the principal had to get on the loudspeaker to tell the students to go back to their classes, and that Ms. Lewis would get to every classroom. I kept my promise, and mind you it’s a performing arts high school, so they were asking me about the business, too. That’s when I had a “wow” moment, and I made a paradigm shift in my thinking. Before, I was doing my school visits to see my old stomping ground and visit my teachers. But now, I had a completely new perspective on it.
‘This matters to other people, what I’m doing, what I have to share. I have something to offer.'” I never thought of it that way before. I never thought that what I was doing would be of value to someone else on that kind of level. It was a personal shift and it became part of my personal mission. I’ve been doing it ever since. I think that’s what this show does, it gives us the opportunity to pay it forward. It may not have been the intention, or maybe that was Mr. Cosby’s intention all along when he created this show, that this would be something entertaining and beneficial to anyone who cared to watch it. 30 years later, I guess he was right.