By Sherri Williams

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.

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.

“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.”

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