Hillman Revisited: A Different World Cast Kicks off Their HBCU Tour

A Different World Cast on the steps of the Bessie Strong Hall
A Different World Cast on the steps of the Bessie Strong Hall
Blair Martin

“Have I told you all how much I love you today yet?” 

On the steps of Bessie Strong Hall, Dawn Lewis uttered these words to her fellow A Different World castmates. She was met with familial, comfortable grins as they posed for a commemorative photo shoot that celebrated the 35th anniversary of the award-winning, beloved production that showcased Black love, joy, and humanity for six award-winning seasons. On February 29, the cast of A Different World kicked off its HBCU College tour at Spelman College and was enveloped with the glee of a campus community that appreciates the significance of its cultural contributions 35 years later. 

The line for Thursday morning freshman convocation is usually non-existent —outside of the few first-year stragglers that arrive late only to find the doors of sisters chapel locked—however, on this leap year Thursday, the line stretched back to Rockefeller with excited students representing all four classes donned in sweatshirts that promoted the fictional Hillman College. 

“I am so excited,” Lindsey Sanders, class of 2027, said. “I love A Different World, and I’ve seen every episode, so today just feels unreal.”

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When each of the seven cast members walked onto the stage, they were met with equally thunderous eruptions of applause from the packed audience. These reactions reflect one of the most enduringly valuable elements of the show: its ability to reflect the identities of its audience and situate them in a way that makes them not only feel seen but loved.

“The characters on our show were really well developed,” Cree Summer said. “So anybody who watched had the really meaningful opportunity to look on the screen and identify with one of us because we all had the privilege of portraying very nuanced individuals.”

Members of the cast spoke passionately about how the show was able to attract such a wide, vibrant community of support by appealing to every facet of the audience that may sit down and tune in on Thursday nights. 

“We were the number two show on television because our show did such a great job at cultivating a different worldview on a myriad of issues each week,” Darryl M. Bell said. “This fostered the coalescent, intergenerational family viewing every Thursday night that set our show apart.” 

The cast attributes the thoughtfulness that made this level of representation achievable to both the Black women who worked behind the scenes of the show and those whose artistic valor served as an inspiration to the cast and crew. Women like Debbie Allen, Lorraine Hansbury, and Susan Fales remained committed to portraying the HBCU college experience with authenticity and dignity. 

“Debbie [Allen] sent the writers to Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, and Hampton to do their due diligence and to do their research,” Jasmine Guy said. “And through that work they were able to find icons and pure energy that we were able to mirror on our show as much as possible.” 

During the show’s seven-year run, it cultivated and maintained a specific space within pop culture. 

One that captured the essence of a specific experience and presented it in a way that has allowed it to transcend space and time and remain a timeless entertainment entity with admirable real-world impacts—enrollment at HBCUs doubled while the show was on air and cast hopes that with this tour they can highlight the way its legacy continues to manifest itself within the hearts and minds of America’s Black young adults.

“A lot of us go through this world feeling invisible,” Cree Summer said. “The reason why we can sit on this stage today and celebrate this show 35 years later is because you all have continued to still see yourselves and your experiences in us, and that mutual empowerment is absolutely wonderful.”

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