Jasmine Guy heads back to ‘The Quad’ — but Whitley Gilbert remains in a different world
BET’s dramatic new HBCU primetime series is timely and relevant
Thirty years ago, we were introduced to Whitley Marion Gilbert. She was a stuffy art history/French double major who hailed from a seemingly pristine family and who, in A Different World’s first season, was largely an unlikable character. Whitley grew on us, of course. She evolved into one of prime-time television’s most iconic black female characters. Years after the show that introduced black college culture to the mainstream, Whitley — especially via YouTube and Netflix — still feels very present. And the woman who brought her to life — the triple threat that is Jasmine Guy — is back three decades later. But be clear: This new character, Ella Grace, dean of the history department, is decidedly not the pride of Hillman’s Gilbert Hall.
“This woman is almost the antithesis of what Whitley would be 30 years later,” Guy said. “This woman … brings home pieces from Peru … and an African tribe that she spent the week with. She’s … a grounded woman. She reminds me of a Charlayne Hunter-Gault. An Angela Davis, with her dress and her intelligence and her ability to speak out and stand up. An Alice Walker. And those are a lot of women that went through Spelman, like Pearl Cleage.”
The Quad is well done. The show takes us to another fictional campus — Georgia A&M University — and black college life represented this way since the show that made Guy famous went off the air in 1993. “Whitley was very, very specific and I was very clear about who she was — and I’m very clear about who this woman is.” Guy said she hasn’t really played another character that’s similar to Whitley. “In the beginning I did that on purpose,” she said. “Yesterday I found out I’m one of the bad and bougies!”
In Quad, Guy is a professor who helps bring a female president to campus and guides her off-the-record as she struggles to lead while facing major pushback from men who don’t want her there. This new show isn’t really like A Different World. It’s not a situational comedy, but here’s where The Quad will remind you of the 1980s show: It too is uniquely designed to tap into our consciousness and see things that quite frankly, we don’t see get talked about in other forms of entertainment.
Guy, suffice it to say, is giddy. “I thought, well, this is a clever way of keeping HBCUs alive. People do forget that A Different World was 30 years ago — because it’s still on. The fact that it’s as palatable to young people as it is, that’s always a gift — and amazing to me.” She loves the fact that The Quad is a very contemporary show, and a drama. “It’s probably going to be more like School Daze. A mini movie every week.”
Indeed, The Quad — which stars Florida A&M alum Anika Noni Rose as the university’s new president — has a cinematic feel, is smartly written, and timely. Arranged to inspire dinner table chatter, plotlines include headline-grabbing issues such as marching band hazing, football program rebuilding, fraternity and sorority life, and underage intoxication, all without judging the decisions the characters make.
It feels authentic to the experience of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — especially those that exist in that cluster of universities in Atlanta, surrounded by a big city that is no stranger to urban strife. “I know the Morehouse-Spelman vibe and family so well,” said Guy, who grew up “across the street” from Morehouse. “I never took anybody’s class, but I saw them as people and how they spoke when they were at each other’s homes, how they raised their kids, how they talked.”
The Quad also doubles down on the white student minority population at HBCUs, and it showcases a diversity of blackness. One student is escaping the often turbulent South Side of Chicago while another is a black daughter of privilege. The portrayals feel refreshingly unique.
“The audience is sophisticated. And I’d love for this show to open conversations. Because of what’s going on in the political climate right now, people are afraid to express ideas, and debate. I hope this show opens that up for people. I want this to be a stimulating experience.”