WJBF – Yes, it is indeed “A Different World” for actress, singer, producer, and philanthropist, Dawnn Lewis, who portrayed Jalisa Vincent (later Vincent-Taylor) in the iconic series, A Different World. Now celebrating its 30th year since the series finale aired on television, Lewis chats with WJBF Digital about she has made it her mission to continue to use her gifts, talents, and platform to empower others and spread hope throughout her community and the world.
What inspired you to get into acting and singing?
I am one of four. I have 3 brothers. I’m the only girl, and when I was coming up it was very, very common to have movies – musical movies – to come on every year with Judy Garland or Lena Horne or the Nicholas brothers or Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, etc. And I would love watching those movies, learning the lyrics, and doing the dances in my living room. So, I started singing at 4 and dancing at 7. My mom finally enrolled me in dance class so that I can have something of my very own away from my brothers. I started acting at the age 11. So, this has been in my spirit as a performer ever since I was very, very small child.
As we mentioned, it has been 30 years since the series finale of the iconic series, A Different World. Now, did you think that this show would have the impact that has had and continues to have on our culture?
Well, while we were on, it was clear that the show was popular. When we first started, we were the spin-off of The Cosby Show. Cosby was the #1 rated show on television [at the time]. Then, our show came on, and we would go back and forth week after week between us and Cosby, who was #1. Then, Roseanne came on the scene. So, then, it was 1, 2, 3… 3, 2, 1. We would always flip. We knew it was popular at the time. We knew that we were speaking to an audience that felt unheard and unseen, and that just wasn’t people of color because our show seemed to transcend generations because there was someone for everyone on our show. For seasoned adults, we had Mr. Gaines (played by the late Lou Myers) and we had Glynn Turman (who played Colonel Brad Taylor). We had something for the young up and coming, the rich, the not-rich, the educated, the not educated, White, Black, Latino… everybody saw themselves in our show and in our stories. So, we knew that it was popular at the time. Who knew that 30 plus years later that the show would still be as relevant and would still touch as many people. There hasn’t been one day of one week of one month of one year that the show has not been on television. So, there is absolutely no way to foresee that. I am incredible humbled by it and grateful for the opportunity and all the doors that it opened. It put me on a much bigger scale in the world of awareness in the world of music. I had been a long-time recording artist, writer, and session singer for so many years, and then, I got the opportunity to write the theme song for A Different World. To hear people who weren’t even born in the same decade as that show knowing all the words, making their own videos, choreographing dance routines to those words that meant so much to me at the time telling my own story… I was 16 years old when I went to college, and all I had with me was what my parents taught me: how to fend for myself, how to rely on myself, how to trust myself, how to believe in myself. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, raised by a Guyanese mom, and going to school at Miami, Florida at 16 years old on my own. So, yeah, those words meant a lot to me. So, to see them transcend how they have… there’s no way to predict that, and I couldn’t be more humble at all.
Now, we are in the age of reboots and reimaginations. Do you think A Different World could be re-booted or re-imagined, and if so, would you be interested in being a part of it?
Could it be? Absolutely! Would I be interested in being a part of it? Absolutely! Is that something that is likely to happen? Probably not. And that has more to do with logistics and ownership and all of those kinds of things rather than anyone’s desire or thinking whether or not this is something of some value or whether or not folks would watch it. That really isn’t the issue. I don’t think it ever has been the issue. So, yeah, that goes into areas that far out of any of our control.
Now, you have been on a slew of television and movies – Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, The Jamie Foxx Show, Disney Channel’s The Poof Point, Girlfriends, Disney Channel’s Let It Shine, One Tree Hill, The Boys, and more. What do you accredit to your success and your longevity in this business?
Grace of God, first and foremost. I am grateful that at a very early age that I was taught that you never really “arrive.” There is always something more to learn. There is always something more as a performer for to grow and to explore and to really invest in character, integrity, and how you come to work and whether or not you can be someone who can deliver and can be depended on. While A Different World was my first big series, to your point, I’ve been blessed to go forward and do so many series. I was just added to the cast of the show, Young Rock with Dwayne [The Rock] Johnson. I spent all of season 3 doing that with him. Before that, I did 911, and I was added to the cast of Grey’s Anatomy, near the end of last season I had a recurring season. With shows like Major Crimes, I was only supposed to do one episode, but the producers liked my chemistry with the rest of the cast so much that they added me to the show. What was supposed to be one episode turned out to be four and a half seasons until the show ended. Over the years, I’ve done probably close to 40 different animated series and movies. The animated series I’m doing now – a couple of them. One is Star Trek: Lower Decks, where I play Captain Carol Freeman, in Karma’s World, I play Mrs. Washington, in Futurama, I’m LaBarbara, in House Broken, I’m one of the dogs that’s in the house, I’m in Duncanville, and I do voices for The Simpsons, including where I am Bernice Hibbert. Recently, they did a special episode of The Simpsons, where I played a woman that one of the main characters, Carl, had a crush on. Her name is Nyima, and from what I understand, I’m being submitted for an Emmy consideration for that episode. As well, I’ve been submitted for an Emmy consideration for a movie I did that got release this past Christmas called Blackjack Christmas, and we’re waiting to see what happens with Young Rock as well. So, that would be… there’s no way to plan that. I wouldn’t dare to ask for that: to be submitted and potentially nominated in three completely different Emmy categories in the same year.
We want to say congratulations to you in advance!
Thank you! I receive that!
Now, your faith plays a big role in your career. Would you mind elaborating on that for us?
Well, the Grace of God. I was raised in a very traditionally religious family. Only a very, very small handful actually had faith in what I do as a performer. The rest of the family really believed that the entertainment industry was one that was writhe with sin, the devil, and temptation, but that’s the world – that’s life. My mom never failed to remind me that the only reason I’m able to do what I do is by the grace of God, that any gift I have was given to me by the grace of God, and to be willing and ready to use it to His glory, which is what I try to do. My walk with the Lord really helps me keep an even keel and an even head in this industry that is filled with so many highs and so many lows. It is very easy to become discouraged or very full of yourself at any given moment. With God as a constant, it helps me keep a level head and to keep pressing forward.
Now, we can get into something that is near and dear to your heart. You are the founder and president of A NEW DAY FOUNDATION, which offers hope and empowerment. Can you tell us a little bit about your foundation and why you hold it so dear to you?
Well, when I was young as I mentioned, there were some people who were for me, and there is always going to be people against you. So, even at an early age, I was bullied and all kinds of things in my environment. So, I was very grateful to my key teachers and to those who were in my village, who helped me to be encouraged and find positivity. So, I got in the habit after I graduated from elementary school, I would go back and visit my key teachers and say thank you giving them update reports. So, that became my habit: high school, college, out of college. I was doing off-off Broadway shows and doing a Broadway tour – that was my habit. I would go back, speak to the teachers, and speak to the kids and answers their questions about what it was like when I was in high school or junior high and get them encouraged and teach them not to bully. But when I did A Different World and when that started, I just continued in my habit and went back to school, but now, this time I’m “Jalesa,” and everybody is over the moon. They had lots of questions. So, I learned at that point that was not about me feeling good; this was about me possessing something that could make a difference to someone else in their life, particularly a young person. So, I’ve been doing that work now for more than 40 years, but seven years ago, I formed a formal non-profit organization called A NEW DAY FOUNDATION, which is a play on my name, Dawnn. Also, it is our mission to be your new day of opportunity towards your best self. That where you were yesterday is not where you will end up today nor where you have to be tomorrow. So, we provide programmatic services for underserved youth and communities across the country and abroad, as far as Guyana, where my family is from, and India. We just supported a school in Costa Rica with school supplies. We have programs for teen girls from 13 to 19 called SISTAS HANG OUT and teen boys from 13 to 19 called MENTORS. Those programs go throughout the year, and we have an annual conference where we focus on financial literacy and technology, which will be coming up this June in Los Angeles.
Now, if people want to learn more about your foundation or if they want to donate, how can they do so?
Please by all means because everything we do, we do free of charge to our participants. So, all the money we raise goes towards to pay for workshop fees, entry fees, transportations, and scholarships. At the conference, we give out 6 to 12 scholarships of $2,000 each and a new computer. So, all of that – that’s what your donation goes to support. So please, visit our donation at www.anewdayfoundation.net. It’s a secure site. You can make donations right there or you can mail them to us. The information for our mailing address is on the page as well. If you see my face on the website, you know that you’re in the right place.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into acting or the entertainment business?
Honestly? Truth? Don’t do it! It’s more than a notion. This industry is not for the faint of heart. The advent of the internet with Tik-Toks, videos, selfies, and all of that – it’s very easy and quick to be seen and feel like, “I can do this.” But making a thirty second Tik-Tok is not the same as showing up on a Broadway stage for four hours a night, eight shows a week. It’s not the same as the grind of being on a film set or a TV set. So, not to be flippant, it’s not for the faint of heart. The people who do it well make it look easy, and it’s anything but easy. There’s so many different lanes in the entertainment industry: in front of the camera and behind the camera. So, all that to say, after hearing me say all of that, if you still feel, but “This is in my spirit. This is in my passion. This is part of why I breathe.” Then – and only then – I would say maybe you have the right spirit and the right mindset to show up, do the work, endure the grind, and be prepared to be told no about 90% more than you’ll be ever told yes and be okay with that, and you still find a way to press through and still find a way to be a level-headed human being. Be someone that someone wants to work with and spend time with. Because more often than not, when you’re working on any project, you are with people for hours and hours and hours, day after day after day. That becomes your world; that becomes your environment. So, you want to be someone that people want to be around and willing to be around, where your work make their work better and your willing to learn that their work makes your work better. That’s a lot of self-checking, and a lot of people aren’t necessarily prepared to do that. However, if this industry is what you want to do, by all means, if you’re ready to put on that armor, come on and let’s roll!