Set at the fictional historically Black institution, Hillman College, A Different World broke ground by exploring relevant topics of the time, including AIDS, racism, and the L.A. riots. The Cosby Show spinoff initially revolved around Lisa Bonet’s character, Denise Huxtable. And among Denise’s teenage roommates was 25-year-old divorcée Jaleesa Vinson, played by Dawnn Lewis—who also co-wrote the show’s theme song—for five of its six seasons.
Though she left the show after its fifth season, A Different World wasn’t the end of Lewis’ career. Keep reading to learn about her second act, her philanthropy work, and where she is now at age 60.
“So many people think I stopped after A Different World or [the 1988 movie] I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” Lewis told Essence in 2020. In truth, she has acted steadily, exiting A Different World after its fifth season to play Robin Dumars on Hanging With Mr. Cooper (for which she also sang the theme song) and has had roles in shows including CSI: Miami, This Is Us and Veronica Mars. She has also been active in film, with roles in The Divorce, The Bucket List, and Dreamgirls, as Melba Early.
While she’s had a varied career, fans of A Different World will always love Lewis for playing Jaleesa on the influential show. When the actor played Medical Accreditation Council investigator Jamarah Blake on Grey’s Anatomy, she filmed an Instagram video with two of the show’s writer’s assistants, all of them sporting some Hillman College gear.
Lewis has an even longer list of credits as a voice actor in both video games and animated TV shows. Just a few of the series she’s voiced characters for include The Simpsons, Doc McStuffins, The Cleveland Show, and Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Lewis’ voice can currently be heard as Captain Carol Freeman on the adult animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks, Ms. Jackie Washington on the Chris “Ludacris” Bridges Netflix series Karma’s World, and as Chief on the animated Carmen Sandiego series.
In 2019, Lewis returned to her native New York to perform in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. She played Zelma Bullock, Turner’s complicated mother. The actor found parallels in Zelma to her own mother, as both women had to leave their children the care of others for a period while escaping an abusive relationship.
“It’s very easy to portray her as a villain,” Lewis said of the role to Hollywood Soapbox. “But I wanted to honor my mom and women like my mom who were taught, or who eventually learned … to love themselves and save themselves from these horrible situations. Hopefully the example you set sets a better example for your kids.”
Lewis told Broadway.com that after Tina Turner herself saw the musical, she paid Lewis the loaded compliment, “You made me feel like home.” The singer also praised her performance as “fabulous” and “spot on.”
In 2017, Lewis founded the almost-eponymous A New Day Foundation, which is focused on empowering underserved youth. The organization provides annual scholarships and computers to college students, hosts mentorship programs, and provides programming focused on the tools of financial and technological literacy. In addition to her work with A New Day, Lewis also serves on the National Advisory Board of the National Center For Civil and Human Rights and has supported causes including The United Negro College Fund, Habitat For Humanity, The March of Dimes, and The Center for Family Justice.
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If you’ve caught some of Lewis’s more recent credits, you may have noticed the “Dr.” before her name. That’s because in 2019, Lewis received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Next Dimension University, a Rancho Cucamonga-based Bible College, in honor of her support to youth and communities across the world.