Many who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s can agree that the iconic sitcom “A Different World” (1987-1993) has had a lasting impact Black culture, youth and HBCUs. It was one of the first shows on NBC to address issues such as racism, HIV, apartheid, colorism and date rape.

Thirty-six years later, the show is still relevant and ahead of its time. Charnele Brown, the actress who is best known for her role as Kimberly Reese on the sitcom, couldn’t have imagined it having such a wide reach with a mainstream audience.

Brown, who is based in Houston, continues to pass the torch to a new generation of entertainers in a city she describes as the next entertainment hub through the Charnele Brown Acting School. The school was established in 2000 and implemented in partnership with the Worksource and Jack Yates High School. It offers a variety of classes and workshops from beginner courses to business classes.

The Defender spoke with the multi-talented actress to talk about her experience in the industry and what she’s been up to in Houston.

Actress Charnele Brown (far right) played the role of Kim Reese in the NBC popular sitcom ‘A Different World’

Defender: When did you first discover your love for acting?

Charnele Brown: I was in second grade, and we used to go to the pond every Friday to see the ducks. I was actually watching “Lassie” one time and one day [the dog who saved lives] didn’t come back [in the episode] and I started to cry. I said “Oh my God” I can make myself cry by think about something sad. I didn’t know that was a technique back in the day. So, what I did was, the class went back to the pond, I thought about Lassie and started crying.

My teacher Ms. White asked me what was wrong. I didn’t think it through. I said my brother died in the pond. Mind you I have no brothers. I have one sister, and they were all distraught. I said, “I got them.” They gave me candy, and called my mom. That’s how convincing I was. Meanwhile, I’m coming home…got the spanking of my life. I had to go back and apologize to the entire class for lying. My parents knew at that time either I was going to be a pathological liar or an actress, and they chose the latter. That’s how it started.

Defender: You attended the SUNY school. How did your experience prepare you to be a working actor?

Brown: I always said acting was my passion. [God] gives us an assignment. I found out early on what I wanted to do. My parents were very supportive and put me in everything. The [State University of New York at New Paltz] is predominately white, and so being in the theater arts department, we had to fight because they kept saying there was nothing for us because they were doing white pieces.

This young lady, her name was Akoua, she decided with the rest of us to create the ensemble theater there. We created it for us to perform. I was so determined. I’m aggressive when it comes to my passion. Other than that, we would have been doing stage craft, like behind the scenes. We wanted to learn and grow like everyone else.

Defender: The arts and entertainment industry is tough, including rejection. What challenges did you experience?

Brown: Rejection is my middle name. I think because of my upbringing, my parents always taught me that I was great [but] that there is always someone better than you. I had rejection but thought, “It’s your loss that you didn’t take me.” What’s for you [will never miss you]. I teach that to my actors. It’s not that you are not great, it’s just not the part for you. I taught me to have thick skin. It’s not a kind industry.

Defender: How did you get the role of Kim Reese on “A Different World?”

Brown: I’m a theater baby. I knew nothing about TV and didn’t care. So, when I got to “Sarafina!” it was amazing. I had the best time of my life on Broadway. We were on our way to Africa to tour for two years. And then God said “No.” “A Different World” came. I didn’t care because I was going to Africa. And lo and behold the next thing I know I’m, flying for my screen test. Then I got [the role]. There were so many actors that were great and better than me.

Defender: What is one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned about acting?

Brown: Be authentic. Be who you are. If they don’t love you for who you are, that’s their loss. A lot of times we change our stripes and then you can’t get it back. I haven’t changed since I was 15. This is who I am. I’m quirky, I’m crazy, I’m clumsy and I’m going to remain those things. I don’t know who else to be.

Defender: What flair did your craft in theater bring to commercial television?

Brown: I brought no flair because I was a theater baby, so I knew nothing about cameras. Jasmine [Guy], I call her my princess, she took me aside and showed me how the camera worked. That’s how I got that flair. She saw me struggling, taught me the cameras and the rest is history.

Defender: What were your thoughts about Black culture and Black pride after being a part of “A Different World” cast?

Brown: I was raised in East Hampton [N.Y.] and there weren’t a lot of us there. Going into college, [a predominantly white institution], they had a Black dorm called Shango Hall. I was in the theater department dorm with this crazy woman who had a Confederate flag and she was into the arts. I knew this wasn’t going to work. So I’m walking down the corridor and I meet this lovely girl [from Brooklyn]. She asked where I’m staying and told me about Shango Hall and it was all Black.

I never experienced so much Blackness in one [area]. It was overwhelming and challenging at times because everyone is coming from different places. Coming from East Hampton I thought everyone was like me. [The Black students] had terrible stories growing up. My parents [told me] I was different because I understood the struggle, which I didn’t have, but understood theirs. So, my whole demeanor changed entirely. Even though I was very Black and very aware of who I was, I was in a bubble.

What does Black resistance mean to you?

Brown: I am who I am. I’m proud to be Black. I’m proud to be a woman. I just wish that people could understand how important and how strong we are. If we stand together nothing can stop us. We were enslaved [as a people], [white people] held us down, but we are still here with them. That’s why they are scared right now. As Black people, in order to get that respect that you want from them, we have to respect each other.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...