A ‘Different’ Take on the L.A. Riots : Television: Industry and civic leaders are both impressed and nervous as ‘A Different World’ opens a new season by dealing with the unrest.
Neither the terrified Asian liquor-store owner nor the baseball bat he was brandishing was discouraging several African-Americans from looting his store Friday night.
One woman ran out of the store carrying a case of beer, gleefully shouting, “Free, free, it’s free at last!” as she tossed the case into a rented 1959 pink Cadillac convertible sitting at the curb. The car was also being filled with goods taken from nearby businesses--turntables, food, even a love seat.
Explaining his actions, the main looter, a solidly built man, explained: “My mom and dad can finally have some furniture in their living room. My motto is, ‘Take a love seat, not a life.’ ”
Moments later, the man grabbed a nearby boom-box and yelled, “This is for Latasha!” as he threw it through the store’s plate-glass window, shattering it into slivers.
The looters froze as a tense female voice bellowed, “CUT!”
Debbie Allen, co-producer and director of NBC’s “A Different World,” looked at her cast and crew, her mouth tightened, her expression unsatisfied. She was having trouble getting her riot right.
Less than four months after the unrest in Los Angeles, Allen was attempting to re-create a looting scene at a Venice art studio made up to look like an aging South Los Angeles establishment.
Accuracy was not Allen’s only goal in depicting the riots. She also wanted laughs--an objective that is already making a few community leaders a little nervous.
The looting scene will be part of the fifth-season opener of “A Different World,” which will premiere Sept. 24 in the Thursday 8 p.m. time slot that “The Cosby Show” dominated for the past eight years.
The two-part episode, “Honeymoon in L.A.: The Simi Side of Life,” is centered around newlyweds Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley (Jasmine Guy), who got married in last season’s finale. The couple is back on campus at fictional Hillman College at the beginning of the school year, recalling their honeymoon in Los Angeles, which was interrupted by the riots.
The program marks the first time that the show, which usually is filmed on a stage in front of a live audience, has gone on location.
Allen, cast members and show executives admit that they are walking a delicate and sensitive tightrope by injecting humor into an uprising that devastated a city, resulted in 51 deaths and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage.
They defended the tackling of the riots within the situation-comedy format, however, saying it is in keeping with the show’s tradition of staying topical and relevant to its young audience. During the past three seasons, “A Different World” has addressed date rape, apartheid, AIDS and the Persian Gulf War.
“Dealing with this is expected of us, and we knew we had to do it,” said head writer and executive producer Susan Fales, who wrote the first episode of the two-parter.
“People are waiting to see how we deal with this just like they’re waiting to see how ‘Murphy Brown’ is going to deal with Dan Quayle,” Fales added.
In the course of the show, which is done mostly in flashback, Dwayne and Whitley get separated just before the verdict in the Rodney G. King beating trial is announced. Dwayne ends up lost in South-Central Los Angeles as the looting starts, while Whitley becomes trapped in a West Hollywood shopping mall.
In addition to becoming an unwitting accomplice of the looters, Dwayne has a largely comic encounter with two Los Angeles Police Dept. officers who confront him as he kicks the tires of his rented car in frustration over the not-guilty verdicts of the policemen on trial. One of the officers (Gilbert Gottfried) is so nervous that he tells Dwayne to put his “roof on the hands of the car.”
Meanwhile, a frightened Whitley poses as a mannequin in a broken display window at a department store as two white female looters began removing clothes from the displays and, eventually, from Whitley.
Adding fuel to the show’s subject matter is an appearance by rapper Sister Souljah. The controversial artist was recently denounced by Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, who said she was a racist for comments she made in a Washington Post interview, including, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”
Souljah plays a shopper who tries to inform the spoiled Southern debutante Whitley about racism. One of her lines is: “The great-great-grandchildren of slaves will never have equal protection under the law or be invited to the table of brotherhood.”
Some community leaders and entertainment industry insiders, when informed of the episode, said this week that they believe “A Different World” will bring a high standard and integrity to the riot-related show.
“This show has dealt with hot issues, and done so very well,” said prominent civil rights attorney Johnnie Cochran, who is on the board of directors of Rebuild L.A., the organization created by Mayor Tom Bradley to guide the city’s revitalization in the wake of the riots.
“Even though it’s very soon to be looking at this, it’s probably appropriate to deal with,” Cochran said. “It will give young African-Americans something to have a dialogue over. It’s not a funny subject, but I suppose it’s one that we can address with humor.”
Candace Jones-Sutton, producer of the “Live From L.A.” show on Black Entertainment Television, said, “I would almost be disappointed if they didn’t try to take on something that’s so at hand. This thing stopped Hollywood. It provides a wealth of material, and can go in all kinds of creative directions.”
Others, however, expressed concerns when told about the plot and some of the dialogue in the script.
“What I would be cautious about is whether the show deals with the rebellion or the substance that led to the rebellion,” said Danny Bakewell, director of the Brotherhood Crusade.
“For instance, to use a phrase like ‘Free at last’ that is so meaningful to black people, and use it in a way of trivializing it, may not be the best thing to do,” he said. “For every person who exploited the situation, there were 10 others who were devastated by it. I’m not sure you can show that in two half-hours.”
Still, Bakewell said, “In past shows, when they’ve dealt with serious topics, they’ve done very, very well. I’d be surprised if they didn’t handle this episode well. But it’s a very delicate subject.”
Another Rebuild L.A. board member, Casimiro Tolentino, who is also assistant chief counsel for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said that he was concerned about how the Asian store owner in the looting scene would come across to viewers.
“I would hope the show would provide some guidance in showing the dynamics between the black and the Asian community,” he said. “People are trying to bridge the gap, and the media is a very powerful force in human relations.”
Allen acknowledged that she didn’t think all viewers would be happy with the show.
“This is a very difficult thing to do,” she said. “Somebody is going to walk away and be mad about this. Others will say it’s brilliant. If it makes people think, that’s the point of the show.”
The show includes other characters at Hillman College discussing how the riots affected them. “Many of them were changed forever,” Allen said. “It was a wake-up call for them.”
Fales and Glenn Berenbeim, who wrote the second script for the two-part riot episode, said they reviewed videotapes and newspaper articles as they worked. Fales, who is black, was out of town on vacation during the riots, while Berenbeim, who is white, said he could see flames from his apartment on La Cienega.
“There’s always humor in reality, no matter what the situation is,” Berenbeim said.
Defending the approach, Guy said, “This is not ‘L.A. Law.’ It’s the challenge of our writers to deal with a serious subject and still be funny and entertaining while staying true to the characters.”
Souljah added, “You can’t really deal with this thoroughly in a situation comedy. You can only touch the surface lightly. But no one expects this to be a documentary. It’s important that an attempt is made to show millions of naive people in American what were some of the real concerns before, during and after the rebellion.”
Allen said that “A Different World” would continue to do shows about relevant issues, including the presidential election and the upcoming federal trial of the officers accused of beating King.
“We must deal with this kind of stuff,” she said. “You can’t raise your children on ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”