Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh are changing the typical narrative of late1960’s America…in the funniest, most heartwarming way possible.
If you’re one of the millions who caught the first half of The Wonder Years premiere season on ABC, a nostalgic look at the Black middle-class residents of Montgomery, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement told through the point of view of and imaginative 12-year-old, then you’ve already seen firsthand the way that sensitive topics like civil rights, police brutality, and deaths of important Black figures have been handled while telling a story of typical life.
Much like the original 1990’s iteration of The Wonder Years, the series tells the story of 1960’s American life through the lens of the experience of an American family. But this time the family, and thus their experiences, look quite a bit different.
“I love the idea of expanding the lens. I love the idea of reimagining that world,” Hill says of the show. “I was a big fan of The Wonder Years growing up when I was a kid. But when I watched the show, I was very aware that I didn’t see myself reflected in the show.”
“This story that we’ve reimagined is also a truly American story. It’s not a ‘Black American story,’” he explains. “Yes, it is a Black American story, but it’s not just putting into that corner. We are America. The black experience is America.”
“Just to show that in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, people were still getting married, still going to the prom, still brushing their teeth, still figuring out who they had a crush on,” Sengbloh added. “I think it’s important for people to see and value our experiences in our day-to-day lives. That everything wasn’t just about struggle.”
“I often say that it wasn’t all dogs and water hoses,” Hill went on. “Yes, that existed. But there also were moments of laughter. There were moments of heart, there were moments of living.”
Hill and Sengbloh portray Bill and Lilian Williams respectively, the parents of the imaginative and emotional 12-year-old Dean (Elisha Williams) and the rebellious and strong-willed 17-year-old (Laura Kariuki). Taking on the opportunity to give a positive portrayal of parenting through critical times is something both actors were immediately drawn to.
“Shout out to the writing team. There are all these great examples of this parenting and these conversations about difficult topics,” Sengbloh observed. “And it’s always put together in a way that’s funny, that’s comfortable, that’s heartwarming, that’s challenging.”
For Hill, having the opportunity to play a strong, loving, and present father in this time period was a unique and welcome opportunity.
“I appreciate that it’s touching a chord that has not been played for a long time,” he said of the show. “And I love the idea that it’s showing the black family unit together set back in that time. But also I think there’s a message in that: we have always been here. The family unit has been there. Especially playing the father, it’s not always that the father is not around,” he explained. “There are many experiences for so many of us where the father is there. And I think that people are thankful to see that reflected on television.”
Playing on-set parents also gives these veteran actors a chance to mentor their young co-stars. The show is told through the vantage point of the children after all, and carrying a brand new show that reboots source material from before they were even born naturally comes with its own unique pressures.
“I think the more important thing is to just be open to the young actors. To be open to share when there are things that they want to know, but also to see them for the artists that they are,” Hill said. A former child star himself, Hill can relate directly to what the young stars experience. “I remember being a child actor, sometimes people would try to brush my thoughts aside because I was a child. And I think it’s important to really take EJ, take Amari, take Milan [Ray], take Julian [Lerner] for the artists that they are, and leave space for their voices.”
“I think one of the most interesting things is the current era that they are performing in versus the era that myself or Dulé, the social media is such a big part of their era,” Sengbloh observed, impressed with her young costars’ work ethic. “I enjoy watching how they navigate, how they manage their time, and they navigate doing the work, doing their schoolwork on set and off set. And then also still managing social media pages and managing Instagram and making little videos, being creative, and doing photoshoots.”
With the season’s second half kicking off on January 5, both Sengbloh and Hill are looking forward to digging deeper into the narrative, giving the audience to learn more about the characters’ motivations and viewpoints.
“I’m very excited for the audience to see more stories about the parents because that will inform the audience about who Lillian is and who Bill is,” Hill said about the season’s second half. He’s even been inspired by his character to delve more into his own interests.
“With Bill, I love that he’s a music man. I love that he’s a sax man. And that’s just – I’m just living my best life right now,” he laughed. “I mean, Bill Williams is the guy I always wanted to be. Bill Williams has inspired me to pick up my sax, which I never really knew how to play, but I’ve had it for a long time, so I’m trying to continuously get better and better at it.”
As for Sengbloh, she’s excited to share a different side of Black life than what we’ve seen pushed to the forefront with stories from this time period.
“I think a lot of the rock and roll party of life has been really put forward in the media as far as Black people (in the 60’s), and I think a little bit more wholesomeness is okay to balance it out,” she says, hoping that some of these examples can trickle into real life.
“I think it’s good for us to re-learn how to have conversations. In our current era, we are always on our cell phones. We have all these distractions. But in that era, they really sat down and had conversations at the dinner table. So I’m hoping that this will inspire more of that.”
“Saladin (K. Patterson) and Fred (Savage) have really done a great job of crafting this world and sharing the richness of us, of who we are as a people,” said Hill. “Fully telling our story.”