'A Different World' hits the road to help historically Black colleges

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'A Different World' hits the road to help historically Black colleges
The cast of “A Different World,” clockwise from top left: Kadeem Hardison, Cree Summer, Charnele Brown, Darryl M. Bell, Dawnn Lewis and Glynn Turman in Washington, April 8, 2024. The beloved series was set at a fictional historically Black university — now, cast members have reunited to visit and support real-life schools. (Schaun Champion/The New York Times)

by Leigh-Ann Jackson



NEW YORK, NY.- Picture a pampered socialite ostentatiously putting her generational wealth on display. Or an outspoken teenage activist leading a climate change protest. Or a charismatic opportunist luring people into his latest scam.

These descriptions apply equally to characters from “A Different World” — a sitcom that ran from 1987 to 1993 — and to today’s social media influencers. So it’s little wonder that the show, which streams on Amazon and Max, resonates with Generation Z.

The series began as a spinoff of “The Cosby Show” centered on Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), and it became a hit in its own right.

“A Different World” broke ground by giving high visibility to an ensemble of aspirational Black young adults, following an eclectic cross-section of coeds attending Hillman College, a fictional historically Black university. There they dealt with typical collegiate growing pains — studying, partying, falling in love and stumbling into adulthood — and also with more serious subject matter, including racism, domestic abuse, gun violence, homelessness and mental health struggles.

“These things mattered, and these are issues which are still relevant today,” said Darryl M. Bell, who played the Hillman huckster Ron Johnson.

Now, more than three decades after the series finale, Bell and other core cast members, including Charnele Brown, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Dawnn Lewis, Cree Summer and Glynn Turman, have reunited for a campus tour of historically Black colleges and universities. Their mission is to raise awareness and enrollment for such institutions, to establish a “Different World” scholarship fund and, of course, to give newer, younger fans a chance to see their parents’ hand-me-down TV idols in person.

“The kids can watch it on their phones,” said Hardison, who played Dwayne Wayne, a gawky math whiz turned professor. “They can really tap in anywhere — that has given us a whole different life with it.” The show premiered 37 years ago, he noted, “so to think that it’s still doing good work is a bit of a dream.”

Bell said, “There’s nothing new under the sun: Everything has its cycle, and it comes back and you find it’s new again.” (That sentiment certainly holds true for many of the show’s wardrobe staples, such as oversize blazers, baggy denim overalls and bomber jackets, all of which are back in style.)

The spark for the tour came in 2016, when several cast members made an appearance at Norfolk State University in Virginia. In the years that followed, Bell courted potential backers to fund a full-fledged college tour. (Guy, who played Whitley Gilbert, the show’s resident diva, playfully calls Bell the “office manager” of the group.)

Getting the stars on board was relatively easy. “This is family,” Summer said. “The majority of us hang out on purpose.”

Teaming up with Cisco and Wells Fargo, and nonprofits Student Freedom Initiative and Minds Matter, Bell lined up six tour stops this year at schools such as Spelman College in Atlanta, Howard University in Washington, D.C., and, later this fall in Alabama, Tuskegee University and Alabama State University; he hopes to schedule 10 more visits in 2025. The events are free for students, faculty and alumni, and Bell said the group is considering opening some events to the public because of demand.

Jaden Jackson, a senior at Tuskegee, has seen every episode of “A Different World” and recently started rewatching them, inspired by the tour announcement. “It’s a classic,” she said. “It’s a show I’ll never get tired of.”

“When people think of HBCUs, they already have a picture of the type of people who go there,” she said. “But it’s such a diverse group of people, and the show does a good job of encapsulating that.” She has a particular affinity for Summer’s free-spirited character, Freddie: “To see someone like me on screen — who acted like me, who I would often be compared to — that really appealed to me and made me excited to go to my HBCU.”

The tour kicked off in Atlanta on Feb. 29, with cast members giving talks at Spelman, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. Instagram posts from the events show crowds giving standing ovations, snapping cellphone photos and, at Clark Atlanta, greeting the cast with a marching band performance.

“The Spelman panel that we did at Sisters Chapel was off the chain,” Guy said. “I was shocked at their excitement, their verve and their vigor. I kept looking at everybody like, ‘Yo! They are treating us like rock stars or something. What is going on here?’”

Hardison likened the reception to an experience he had while accompanying his friend Lenny Kravitz on a concert tour of Japan in the late 1990s. “It took me back to when he went out onstage and the Japanese kids were screaming,” he said.

The Spelman chapel, which holds 1,000, was at capacity during the event, according to a spokesperson. Helene D. Gayle, president of Spelman, moderated a talk with the actors and a Q&A session afterward.

“When I first took on the role of president of Spelman, people would ask me, ‘What’s it like? How do you feel?’ ” Gayle said in an interview. “And I’d say, ‘Well, I feel like I am on the set of “A Different World” every day.’ ”

She said many of the students had heard of the show from older relatives and had watched it on streaming platforms. Adrian Crick, a Spelman freshman, said audience members were well versed in Hillman lore. One student serenaded the cast with her own version of the theme song.

“I hadn’t watched the show, but my mom said it’s an important cultural touchstone for Black people,” Crick said. “The level of production that Spelman, Morehouse and Clark put on for them indicated to me this is something to pay attention to, this is kind of historic.”

When the tour visited Howard last week, the campus was abuzz with “Hillman at Howard Day” activities, including step performances by fraternities and sororities and a fashion show in which students dressed as their favorite characters. (There were, of course, multiple pairs of flip-top sunglasses, Dwayne Wayne’s signature accessory.)

An estimated 1,400 attendees were at the main event at the school’s Cramton Auditorium, with many screaming and waving cardboard cutouts of the characters as the actors took the stage. Kim Coles, a star of “Living Single,” moderated a panel that included appearances by Karen Malina White, who appeared in the final season of “A Different World” (and was Miss Howard 1985), and by “The Cosby Show” actress Tempestt Bledsoe, who is Bell’s partner.

Sinbad chimed in via video and so did Debbie Allen, a Howard alumna who overhauled the series in its second season. Allen told the audience that “A Different World” mirrored her own college experiences and described the show as a vital voice for young Black America.

While the cast members were in Washington, they visited the White House to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and appear in a video promoting the Biden administration’s student loan debt relief efforts.

Summer, who grew up in Canada, was unfamiliar with predominantly Black campuses before joining the cast at 18. She said getting the Hillman experience was the next best thing and now considers herself a champion of the schools.

“There’s a reason we’re on tour right now,” she said, noting that it was imperative to remind people that an HBCU “is an incredible place to get an education and an incredible place to secure and dive deeper into our culture.”

Gayle said the Supreme Court’s 2023 affirmative action decision, which barred race-conscious college admissions policies, had made HBCUs even more indispensable.

“We’re at this moment where I think what we provide young people is perhaps more important than ever,” she said. “I hope that the tour can be part of that, as well — showing young Black people and their communities how important it is to be grounded in institutions that value them, that reflect who they are and reflect the excellence that is resonant within the African American community.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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