‘A Different World’ cast reunites at Howard University

Howard students wait to meet the cast of “A Different World.” The cast arrived during Hillman Day, an event referencing the series’ fictional HBCU. (HU News Service/Kareema Bangura)

By Kareema Bangura

The cast of “A Different World” visited Howard University on April 9 for a panel discussion hosted by actor and comedian Kim Rhodes.

The event was part of their HBCU Tour, which raises awareness and scholarship funds “to inspire a new generation to choose HBCUs” and ensure access, according to the tour’s webpage.

Airing from 1987 to 1993 as a spinoff of “The Cosby Show,” Debbie Allen’s series showcased the HBCU experience. 

Allen, a Howard alumna, said her time at Howard inspired the series.

Before the cast took the stage in Cramton Auditorium, Howard University President Ben Vinson III recounted his memories of watching the sitcom 35 years prior.  

“I remember trying to get through my homework quickly so that when the hour came on Thursday night, I would be free and able to digest the fun, the laughter, the camaraderie, and the lessons that were imparted in this incredible show,” Vinson said.

The cast members of “A Different World” are welcomed at Howard’s campus, which inspired the show’s fictional HBCU, Hillman College. (HU News Service/Kareema Bangura)

Cast member Dawnn Lewis, who played Jaleesa Taylor, emphasized that the positive portrayal of HBCUs is as important now as when the show first premiered. 

“We are being so challenged right now with our history being erased, with people trying to minimize our contributions,” Lewis said. “This environment, where we are and shows like ours, gives us the audacity to be excellent.” 

According to a CNN report, enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) increased by 26% between 1976 and 1994, with the show credited for raising enrollment for HBCUs nationwide. 

“We felt the love from our people, but not necessarily from the industry at large,” said Cree Summer, who portrayed the free-spirited activist Winifred ‘Freddie’ Brooks.

Jasmine Guy, who is known to “A Different World” fans as Whitley Gilbert, highlighted the importance of diversity within character portrayal. 

“The freedom that we had in our characters was because we were different,” she said. “ We were bringing a variety of lifestyles to the Black community because we are not a monolithic group of people.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the show involved topics such as race, class relations, sexual assault, and much more, said the cast.

In the season 4 episode titled “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” the series explores the topic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, making history as the first American network television show to address it.

“We had great writers, and they put us in the position to really live out things that I never saw,” said Kadeem Hardison, who played the character Dwayne Wayne. 

Howard University Student Association President Nia Naylor describes “A Different World” as “a time machine that has truly impacted generations and will continue to for years to come,” maintaining that the show’s topics have remained relevant in collegiate spaces today and has inspired students, just like her, to attend an HBCU.

Other Howard alumni were involved in the production in addition to Allen, such as alumna Karen Malina White, who portrayed Charmaine Brown.  

“I’m so proud to be a Bison, always,” said White, “This is where we learn to define who we are.”

On portraying the character Kimberly Reese, Charnele Brown reflected, “I am so overwhelmed about representing the Chocolate sisters. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time,”

The panelists said the cast’s diverse makeup contributed to a broader shift in television towards more diverse and nuanced representations of race and identity, specifically of the Black community.

Debbie Allen, producer of ‘A Different World,’ calls in as a special guest during the panel event hosted by Kim Rhodes. (HU News Service/Kareema Bangura)

“They paved the way for us,” said musical theater major Sky Davis. “So, if they worked that hard and got to where they are, imagine what we can do.”

Sponsored by Cisco, Wells Fargo, the Freedom Student Initiative, and Minds Matter, the cast members have toured several HBCUs, including Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College, to speak inspiration to prospective HBCU students.

The cast will continue their tour this fall, visiting HBCUS, Alabama State, and Tuskegee University.