Actors discuss impact of ‘It’s a Different World’ at History Speaks
Two actors brought plenty of humor to an iconic television show that helped shine a spotlight on HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
So it wasn’t surprising that Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison, stars of the NBC sitcom “A Different World,” kept guests laughing throughout a recent History Speaks presentation at Oklahoma Christian University. The pair helped ensure the 10th and final History Speaks event at OC, typically held during Black History Month, was a happy hit.
“A Different World” aired from 1987 to 1993 as an NBC spinoff from another sitcom “The Cosby Show.” By chronicling the lives of students at the fictional Hillman College, the show exposed the general public to an up-close and personal glimpse of what it meant to be a college student at an HBCU.
From the moment that Gary Jones, History Speaks’ founder, introduced Guy and Hardison, the duo appeared to appeal to the audience’s sense of nostalgia and respect for the unique role that “A Different World” and the actors have played in American history and culture.
The pair stepped out on stage to the theme song from “A Different World” (sung by Aretha Franklin) and many enthusiastic guests sang the lyrics along with Guy: “I know my parents loved me, Stand behind me come what may (hmm), I know now that I’m ready yeah, For I finally heard them say, It’s a different world, hmm, Than where ya come from, Yes it is now.”
In conversational-style format, Jones asked the actors questions before taking queries from the audience. The actors talked about how they weren’t initially aware of the show’s important legacy. They said they eventually learned that during the run of their hit show, enrollment at HBCU’s rose dramatically.
“I’m still enjoying how much of an impact it had,” Hardison said.
The pair, who played lovebirds Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne on the show, provided several personal insights about the sitcom, including:
• Guy initially audiJones tioned for the role of “Jaleesa” on the show, a part that ultimately went to actor Dawnn Lewis.
• Renowned dancer, choreographer, director-producer Debbie Allen was brought in during the shows second season and she helped bring a sense of realism to the show.
• Guy modeled Whitley’s distinctive Southern twang on one of her former school teachers.
• Hardison performed on “The Cosby Show” and that stint led him to be invited to audition for “A Different World.”
h The pair felt privileged to bring Black history to the forefront on the show and to work with a lengthy list of African American guest stars, including Lena Horne, Patti Labelle, Dianne Carole and Gladys Knight.
On a serious note, Jones told the duo that they seemed to take on some tough topics during the show’s run. Hardison agreed, saying that he thought two episodes in particular, were noteworthy. He said one tackled the issue of date rape and the other was about a racial confrontation between Dwayne and fellow Hillman student Ron (portrayed by Darryl M. Bell) and white students from another university.
Meanwhile, Guy said she came from a long line of educators and some of them were on staff at Spellman, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia, where her family lived nearby. When asked which HBCU she would have attended, she mentioned Spellman because of her family’s connection to the school, or Howard University in Washington, D.C. With a big grin, Hardison said he would attend Langston University, Oklahoma’s only HBCU, earning him applause and cheers from Langston students, alumni and other supporters in the crowd.
10 years of living history
For 10 years, OC’s free lecture-style event welcomed notable civil rights figures to the university, 2501 E. Memorial Road, in order to educate others on various topics such as equality, freedom and love.
Previous History Speaks guests included Carlotta Walls LaNier and Terrence Roberts, member of the Little Rock Nine; Wheeler Parker Jr., cousin of Emmett Till; Raymond Santana of the Central Park Five; civil rights icon Andrew Young; and Diane Nash, an organizer and participant of the Freedom Rides to end interstate segregation of buses and transit facilities.
Others included: bus desegregation activist Claudette Colvin and civil rights attorney Fred Gray; Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith; and Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the Rev. Oliver Brown known as the plaintiff for the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. In 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Jones and a group of OC students traveled to Alabama to interview one of the youngest participants of the march on Selma on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The interview with JoAnne Bland, near the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, along with a civil rights themed-tour of the city, was featured in the only virtual History Speaks presentation.
Jones, the university’s former assistant dean of students, took time during the recent History Speaks presentation to thank guests and donors. He said he was particularly grateful to school leaders Neal Arter, OC dean of students, and OC President John deSteiguer, for their support over the years.
“We wouldn’t be here without your blessing,” Jones told the two men. “You found this conversation to be important before it became popular.”
Jones said he had taken a position at the University of Oklahoma’s Price School of Business, but had been asked to return to Oklahoma Christian University to help close out the History Speaks series at the school.
Jones encouraged Oklahoma Christian University to continue the series’ premise in some form or fashion, and that the community support those efforts.
“When this thing reemerges, whenever it reemerges, I’m going to ask that you support it,” he said. “I feel like we moved the needle. Be sure that the work we have started here doesn’t die.”