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'A Different World' Still a Key Cultural Force 30 Years Later

A Different World took the nation to the yard and schooled them on the culture, care and traditions of black colleges and showcased the concerns of black youth
Image: A Different World
A DIFFERENT WORLD -- Season 1 -- Pictured: (clockwise from top left) Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten, Lisa Bonet as Denise HuxtableGary Null / NBCU Photo Bank

Being on the set of the sitcom "A Different World" was like being on a college campus for actress Charnele Brown. Icons like Lena Horne, Patti LaBelle and Diahann Carroll felt like visiting professors whose wisdom she devoured when they were guest stars. The show’s director Debbie Allen was the distinguished professor who dropped gems of knowledge daily.

“We were going to school,” Brown said of the cast members on the sitcom set on the campus of the fictional historically black Hillman College where she played the studious pre-med student Kim Reese. “That was an incredible experience that I’m sure I’ll never get again and I’m blessed that God gave me that opportunity to have that experience.”

"A Different World" debuted on NBC 30 years ago on Sept. 24, 1987 and not only taught the cast lessons, it took the nation to the yard and schooled them on the culture, care and traditions of black colleges and showcased the experiences of black youth in an unprecedented way for six years. "The Cosby Show" spin-off was a cultural earthquake and its tremors are still felt today.

Image: A Different World
(back row, l-r) Cree Summer as Winifred 'Freddie' Brooks, Glynn Turman as Col. Bradford 'Brad' Taylor, Charnele Brown as Kimberly 'Kim' Reese, Darryl M. Bell as Ronald 'Ron' Johnson, Lou Myers as Vernon Gaines, (middle) Cory Tyler as Terrence Johann Taylor, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert Wayne, Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne, (front) Jada Pinkett Smith as Lena JamesNBCU Photo Bank

The actors from the show conduct speaking tours together at colleges across the country.

Millennials chronicle moments from their favorite episodes on social media where the cast has a large following. Hillman College t-shirts and Dwayne Wayne’s famous flip-up eyeglasses are in demand. Art work representing the show’s characters is selling and the show remains popular in syndication. TV One will air a marathon on Sunday.

“People are watching the show that weren’t even born when we were filming the show,” said Dawnn Lewis who portrayed Jaleesa Vinson Taylor. “Kids that were born in 90 whatever or 2000 whatever are now saying that the show motivates and inspires them.There are websites, all kinds of fan sites asking that we reboot the show, bring the show back...It’s humbling.”

"A Different World" has staying power because it was so positive, said Kadeem Hardison who played the bookish but cool Dwayne Wayne. Hardison first learned about historically black colleges and universities as a cast member on the show.

Image: A Different World
(l-r) Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Cree Summer as Winifred 'Freddie' Brooks, Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert WayneBob Gersny / NBCU Photo Bank

“We’d never seen black kids in college on television,” said Hardison who now stars in the Disney Channel series K.C. Undercover. “Here comes this show and if it caught you at 14 years old it took you through high school and propelled you into college and it created a lot of successful, education-first minded people who can’t let go who know what it was like for them and what it did for them and they want it back. They want it back for their kids and this new generation.”

The show was appealing 30 years ago and now because it is also an intergenerational portrayal of blackness that is also inclusive of a variety of black identities, said Lewis who recently worked on the shows "Major Crimes" and "iZombie."

“There was something for somebody whatever shade black you were or whatever shade of black you were not. Whatever age group you were in whether you were retired and trying to make your contribution to these young people like Mr. Gaines was. Whether you were a former military person like Col. Taylor was. Whether you were somebody who thought it was over for you but you were gonna take a chance on yourself and reboot yourself and try again like Jaleesa was. Or you were privileged and really had no concept of what the average person had to deal with like Whitley was...There was something for everybody.”

Image: A Different World
(l-r) Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert Wayne, Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus WayneNBCU Photo Bank

It also showed America something it needed to see - unapologetically black people who revered their blackness, Brown said.

“People could feel our pride being black,” said Brown who runs the Charnele Brown Acting School in Houston, Texas and stars in "Coffee Klatch," a film that addresses black people and AIDS. “This is who we are. We love who we are. We want to learn. We want to grow. We want to be great people. We want to please our parents. I think that’s why a lot of people are holding on to us.”

The hottest aspects of black popular culture also took center stage on the show. The most influential artists of the day appeared on the show including Tupac, Heavy D, Gladys Knight, Kriss Kross and En Vogue. Fashion was key from the classic style of Jasmine Guy’s character Whitley Gilbert and cutting edge threads of Lena James portrayed by Jada Pinkett Smith.

Debbie Allen’s role as a producer and director of the show helped ensure that the best in black style and culture were present as well as the authentic reflection of the black college experience, said Glynn Turman who played the math professor and military man Col. Brad Taylor on the show.

Image: A Different World
Jada Pinkett Smith as Lena JamesNBCU Photo Bank

“She brought on that awareness with all of the dancing and all of the fun and all of the clubs and all of the stepping and what the life on campus was really about and she infused that in the storylines,” Turman said of Allen who attended Howard University, an HBCU. “She was a marvel, a whirlwind that took and turned that upside down.”

The show was also significant because it crushed the idea that being educated isn’t cool, Turman said.

“'A Different World' took that myth, that notion and turned it upside down and showed how cool it was to seek and become educated,” said Turman who will appear in the upcoming film "Windows on the World." “And I think that so many kids needed that reinforcement so that they had options that they could go to without being looked upon and being ostracized as the uncool kid who thinks he’s trying to be white because he’s trying to seek an education.”

The show is credited with an increase in black student enrollment at historically black colleges and predominantly white institutions. The cast said they are proud that by simply showing up and going to work they influenced black academic achievement.

Natilie Williams, 24, was born after the show ended but she watched reruns in the mornings before she headed to middle school. The show inspired her to attend college and had such a strong impact on her that she made it the focus of her master’s degree thesis in communications at Illinois State University (where she is also an adjunct instructor).

Image: A Different World
(clockwise from top left) Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten, Lisa Bonet as Denise HuxtableGary Null / NBCU Photo Bank

Williams’ analytical research of the show found that "A Different World" offered viewers lessons about about the value of healthy relationships among youth and elders, romantic partners and it was a rare and classic example of black men’s friendships.

“When they embrace each other as brothers they grow from each other,” said Williams who also lectures across the country on college success. “They were able to correct each other in such a way that it even if it caused friction at first they we so much brothers they realized you’re correcting me because you love me.”

The show was also a pioneer in addressing controversial issues. It was among the first to have storylines related to date rape, military occupation, homelessness and racism. "A Different World" handled those issues with grace while still remaining top ratings.

Darryl M. Bell, who played musician and ladies man Ron Johnson on the show, said "A Different World" was impressive because it was able to encompass good jokes, drama and address controversial issues and deliver it in a thought-provoking way in 30 minutes.

Image: A Different World
(l-r) Marisa Tomei as Maggie Lauten, Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson TaylorNBCU Photo Bank

Bell and Hardison both said their favorite episode is one in which Ron and Dwayne got into an altercation with white students at a football game and the N-word was sprayed on Ron’s car.

Such an episode is still relevant today considering racial tension across the country and on college campuses, Bell said.

“It really spoke to racial tensions in this country that persist and linger and seem to preclude all of us from being able to get beyond the tropes and pitfalls of the past of segregated and racially polarized America to try to really move forward as the United States of America,” he said.

The show had timeless issues, a talented cast, introduced the nation to the hidden jewel of historically black colleges and most importantly held a mirror up to Black America that was inspirational and profound, Hardison said. “Anytime you see yourself reflected in a positive light it does something to you.”

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