‘A Different World’ cast reunites to reflect on the show’s impact


On any given day, the Yard at Howard University can look like a scene right out of “A Different World.” But on a warm afternoon last week, it looked especially like a scene from ADW because several members of the cast were there to reflect on the legacy of the beloved series.

Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy, eternally shipped as Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert-Wayne? Present. So, too, were Darryl M. Bell, who starred as Dwayne’s BFF Ron Johnson, Cree Summer, known for playing the bohemian-chic Freddie Brooks, and Charnele Brown, who starred as aspiring lawyer Kim Reese.

Howard’s campus in Northwest D.C. marked the second stop of a multi-city tour that has reunited the colleagues turned family at the center of the NBC sitcom about life at a fictional historically Black college. Under the direction of HU graduate Debbie Allen, the “Cosby Show” spinoff, which aired from 1987-1993, became a funny, poignant and groundbreaking sitcom in its own right.

Thirty-five years after it premiered, “A Different World” occupies a hallowed place in the Black TV canon and is one of several groundbreaking series belatedly getting its due in the era of streaming and social media. The cast was at Howard to celebrate that, but also to talk about the show’s impact — enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities notably increased during the show’s run.

The inspiration for Hillman, ADW’s fictional college, has long been a topic of friendly debate among HBCU students. So it was unsurprising when the cast gathered to answer questions from reporters and a student journalist kicked things off by surmising that the beloved series was based on the Mecca (as Howard is known to its nearest and dearest), right? Right?

Glynn Turman, who played Colonel Bradford Taylor on the show, explained that it was actually an amalgam of several prominent HBCUs, including Howard (a no-brainer given Allen’s affiliation), the other HU (Virginia’s Hampton University) and Spelman, the Atlanta college that provided exterior shots for Hillman’s campus. Dawnn Lewis, whose character Jaleesa was in her mid-20s when she enrolled at Hillman, added that “the germ of the show” came from creator Bill Cosby, who was passionate about higher education and HBCUs in particular.

Yes, Cosby — whose name came up respectfully but sparingly as the cast discussed the show’s legacy — was the creator of “A Different World,” but it was Allen who made it into the show we all remember. The forgettable first season revolved around Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) and her white roommate, Maggie (Marisa Tomei); Tomei left the show entirely after Season 1, while Bonet appeared only as a special guest.

Hired to reboot the series in its second season, Allen leaned into the show’s HBCU setting, requiring the show’s writers to spend time on HBCU campuses, and shifting the focus to Dwayne, Whitley and their inner circle.

Some of the Hillman Day discourse — which unfolded during a well-attended panel discussion that followed the cast’s chat with reporters — revolved around the ways in which it truly is a different world 35 years after the show’s premiere. Earlier that day, the cast visited the White House, where at least one Howard alum (that would be Vice President Harris) has an office. TheGrio reporter April Ryan shared a video of the cast singing the show’s memorable theme song in the White House press room, enthusiastically led by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Though ADW’s legacy looms large three decades on, it didn’t always feel that way for the cast. In all honesty, when we were doing the show we were just so happy to be employed,” explained Summer, looking every bit the flower child in a flowy denim ensemble and vintage top hat. “Yes, we were the number two show on TV, but as people of color, we didn’t feel that. We felt the love from our people but not necessarily from the industry at large.”

“It really is a retroactive love, and I have to say that’s kind of the best kind of love because now we’re all old enough to really appreciate it,” she added.

The multigenerational appeal of “A Different World” was especially apparent at the panel, where student body president Nia Naylor recalled watching Dwayne and Whitley as a toddler in “a polka-dot onesie.” The university’s president, Ben Vinson III, remembered watching the show as a teenager, hurrying to finish his homework in time to tune in.

The discussion was full of surprises: it was moderated by “Living Single’s” resident quirk, Kim Coles, and featured appearances by Karen Malina White, who played fast-talking Charmaine Brown on later seasons of ADW, and Tempestt Bledsoe, who played Huxtable daughter Vanessa on “The Cosby Show” (and, once, on “A Different World”). Comedian Sinbad, a.k.a. Coach Oakes — who several cast members credited with elevating their own comedic chops across the show’s six seasons — appeared via video to thank fans for the love.

Allen steered the show in a more socially conscious direction, with episodes devoted to topics including HIV/AIDS (at a time when it was controversial to even mention condoms on television), consent and apartheid. “I felt the show needed to be upgraded to a more mature level of talking and thinking,” Allen told the AP in 1989. “Teenage pregnancy, student uprisings, voting and other issues.”

She wasn’t there in person, but Allen did appear in an indelible ADW clip that featured her character, Dr. Langhorne — in a mushroom bob and comically large glasses — counseling a frazzled Whitley to “relax, relate, release.” (Allen’s sister, “Cosby Show” actress Phylicia Rashad, was in the audience as the outgoing dean of Howard’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts). Coles invited the audience to repeat the mantra in an effort to conjure an appearance by Allen, who signed on via video during a break from directing “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The moment was a reminder that the industry has also evolved, thanks to the efforts of famous HBCU alums including producer Will Packer, who graduated from Florida A&M University, and Taraji P. Henson, who studied drama at Howard. Lena Waithe, the actress-writer-producer behind Showtime’s “The Chi” and BET’s “Twenties,” made ADW’s fictional university the namesake of her production company, Hillman Grad.

Morehouse alum Spike Lee famously brought the HBCU experience to the big screen in his 1988 film, “School Daze,” which marked early roles for Guy, Hardison and Bell. But apart from that film and a handful of others, including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Lee-produced debut “Love and Basketball,” it’s not common to see HBCUs on screen.

When NPR host Ayesha Rascoe was editing “HBCU Made,” a collection of essays from graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, she found it striking by how many HBCU alums — from varying generations — mentioned “A Different World.”

“When people talk about their views of going to an HBCU or why they went, ‘A Different World’ really played such a big role,” Rascoe, also an graduate of Howard, said in a phone interview. “I think it just shows the importance of media and the importance of telling these stories because they have such a wide impact on people and the decisions that they make, even just something as important as the school that they go to.”

As the panel ended, Hardison gave away a pair of his character’s trademark flip-up aviators — finally capitalizing on the memorable accessory — and the cast gamely interacted with students, some of whom — as Summer noted at one point — hadn’t even been born when “A Different World” premiered.

“It’s beyond beautiful and it’s overwhelming and it just lets me know that the legacy will live on,” she said.

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