Actress and singer Dawnn Lewis is best known for her role as Jaleesa Vinson on the NBC sitcom “A Different World.” Today, she’s back in New York City on Broadway in a major role in the musical “Tina.”
With an acting career spanning several decades, Lewis’ accolades include stage, television and film roles along with a stellar singing career. She’s also giving back to youth with her organization A New Day Foundation.
Born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to Guyanese parents, Lewis began singing at age 4, dancing at 7 and acting at age 11.
“I’ve been doing what I do just about my entire life,” she said in an interview. “My dream was to be a recording artist and get Broadway shows.”
Lewis graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School (formerly High School of Music & Art) at age 16 before heading to the University of Miami where she founded the musical theater degree program and graduated magna cum laude,
In 1985, Lewis was performing in the national tour of the Broadway musical “The Tap Dance Kid.” The same crew who casts the musical also cast “The Cosby Show,” which was the No. 1 sitcom at the time. Upon hearing the series was creating a spin off starring Lisa Bonet, Lewis reached out to the casting team about auditioning but was rejected. She was later contacted by “The Cosby Show” music director Stu Gardener who heard Lewis’ demo and asked her to write the theme song for “A Different World.”
“The casting company called me and asked me if I was still interested in auditioning and I said ‘yeah,’” she said. “The audition was on Thursday, and on Friday I was in the studio recording the theme song and a week later I was booked for the role of Jeleesa. They didn’t know they had hired the same person until my final meeting where Mr. Cosby had to give final approval.”
Lewis played the role of Jeleesa Vinson, a non-traditional college student, for five of the six seasons of “A Different World” from 1987 to 1992. The sitcom is about the lives of students at the fictional historically Black Hillman College. Lewis is credited with Cosby and Gardner for writing the show’s theme song, which was sung by Phoebe Snow, Aretha Franklin and Boys II Men over the course of the series.
Lewis left the final season of “A Different World” to take a starring role in the ABC sitcom “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper” with comedian Mark Curry and Holly Robinson Pete.
“As a performer, you are grateful when you get to do work where you can express yourself creatively,” Lewis said. “I’m humbled when the work actually causes an imprint on people’s motivation. The fact that [“A Different World”] has been on television around the planet everyday of every year for 37 years, it blesses my heart. I’m so humbled.”
Since her role on “A Different World,” Lewis has taken numerous television and movie roles in the film “Dreamgirls,” “Major Crimes,” “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” and soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” Some of her recent roles include voice work on Netflix’s animated “Carmen Sandiego” and as Captain Carol Freeman in the animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” which garnered her two NAACP Image Award nominations.
On stage she played Addaperle in “The Wiz” with New York City Center’s Encores! and portrayed Deloris Van Cartier in “Sister Act the Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006.
In 2019, Lewis landed the role of Tina Turner’s mother Zelma in Broadway musical “Tina.” She was living in Los Angeles at the time and wanted to move back to her native New York. Lewis auditioned for the role by video and was selected.
In the musical, Zelma leaves a young Turner to escape an abusive relationship. Lewis says Zelma’s character is personal for her as her own mother left her to escape a violent domestic situation. Lewis was also in an abusive marriage, which she left quickly.
“Zelma was living in a home full of domestic violence, and Tina and her sister observed it,” Lewis said. “It can be considered villainizing when you leave your children in order to save your life and that’s what Zelma did. My mom left us for about a year and a half so that she could get her life together in order to come back and get us. My story, like Tina, follows a lot of parallels.”
Tina, like all Broadway shows, closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show is set to reopen Oct. 8.
Along with her entertainment career, Lewis is the founder and president of A New Day Foundation. The organization offers programming for and financial support for underserved youth around the world. A New Day Foundation also provides mentoring for teens and has been giving scholarships since 2017. During the pandemic, the foundation gave out 20 scholarships to 20 graduating high school students totaling over $50,000.
In June, Lewis was inducted into the Women Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Valerie Simpson, Roberta Flack and Naomi Judd. She invited students from the Renaissance Youth Center in the Bronx to attend the event at a table sponsored by her foundation.
“There’s a lot going on and I hope people enjoy “Tina,” “Star Trek: Lower Decks” and support the A New Day Foundation. I’m just so thrilled to be back,” Lewis said.
Lewis is currently working on an upcoming TV pilot for Fox and starring in the new animated series “Karma’s World” created by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges premiering on Netflix on Oct. 15.