On “The Cosby Show” spin-off “A Different World,” Denise Huxtable got more than she bargained for in roommate Jaleesa, a sassy upperclassman who had low tolerance for nonsense. For six years, Dawnn Lewis immortalized the role as the resident mother hen, keeping everyone from spoiled Whitley Gilbert to her almost-husband Walter Oakes, played by Sinbad, in check. Since then, the Brooklyn native has continued to make her mark, costarring in films, pitching sitcoms, winning a Grammy for her songwriting, running her own production company, voicing animated characters and more. ESSENCE.com caught up with the accomplished actress to get details on her new role in “The Wiz” alongside Ashanti, and what few people know about her life in entertainment.
ESSENCE.COM: We are excited to hear you’ll play Addaperle in “The Wiz” this summer. Are you ready for the New York stage?
DAWNN LEWIS: I’m thrilled. I’m coming home! I left New York in 1987 for “A Different World” and I haven’t lived there since. And for it to be “The Wiz” is so perfect. This was the first show I ever saw on Broadway and my grandmother took me. I was mesmerized by Stephanie Mills and knew I wanted to do this. Ashanti and I have met and I am looking forward to working with her. I have known Tichina Arnold for 20 years, and this is our first time getting to work together. The spotlight is on and we have to bring it.
ESSENCE.COM: Definitely. Now for a lot of people you are still Jalessa from “A Different World.”
LEWIS: Of course. That was my highest profile role and it was a lot of steps to get there. I have been performing since I was a child and did “Sesame Street” at 11. I was fresh out of college and on Broadway when I heard about “The Cosby Show” spin-off. I reached out and they said they were going for someone younger-looking to play Denise’s roommate, but months later called me back. At the same time I was in talks to write the show’s theme song. Neither side knew, and I got called back for both.
ESSENCE.COM: Folks might not realize how busy you’ve been since the show. Care to set the record straight?
LEWIS: So many people think I stopped after “A Different World” or “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” I’ve done dozens of animated voices, including Storm from “X-Men,” appeared in numerous shows and movies and have my own production company, which I started in 1988. I’ve done a lot of pilots, including one with Kyla Pratt and Kim Coles. I was also thrilled to be in “Dreamgirls” playing Eddie Murphy’s wife.
ESSENCE.COM: So what’s the biggest lesson and best memory you can share from your lengthy career thus far?
LEWIS: This is one of the most rewarding professions. I still get chills remembering seeing Lena Horne and have her call me over because she actually knew my name. With the fun, you have to also remember it’s called show business. Everyone else is getting paid, so you have to cover yourself. They didn’t want to give me my screen credit for writing “A Different World” theme song at first, so I had to fight for it. I know the only reason I am where I am is because someone took the time to reach out a hand to me. I’ve had a blessed career.
Check out Dawnn Lewis in “The Wiz” in June.