As the star of ABC’s redux of the late-’80s series, The Wonder Years, 12-year-old Elisha “EJ” Williams is charged with helping tap the memories of growing up that are universal across cultures, while at the same time informing them with elements that are unique to the African-American experience.
The young actor says, “I call this one a remix, because with the remix—if you think of it like a song—it normally has the lyrics from the original, but then you have a featured artist, or you have a DJ who just completely mixes it up, and you hear a new and unique version.”
Of course, this type of storytelling—the “coming-of-age” tale—belongs to a rich heritage, and, if well executed, there are few genres as heartwarming and life affirming. These narratives can transport us back to the pubescent days of our youth, where we foolishly thought we knew everything about everything, only to discover we hadn’t a clue.
Luckily, there are plenty of colorful characters available to offer advice and life lessons in the series—much of it worth filing away for future reference, and some worth depositing into file 13. But, when delivered to humorous or bittersweet effect (oftentimes, both), it makes for a trip down memory lane well worth taking.
In the new Wonder Years, EJ stars as Dean Williams, a teen boy who lives with his middle class, African-American family in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama. His father Bill (Dulé Hill) is a musician and professor, while his mom (Saycon Sengbloh) works in accounting. He also has a rebellious older sister (Laura Kariuki), older brother (Spence Moore II)—who is on a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Any coming-of-age story worth its salt has a present-day narrator, and this show landed a good one in Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, who puts it all into perspective and gives voice to the man young Dean will grow up to be. Lee Daniels (Empire) is executive producer, along with Fred Savage, who played the central character in the earlier Wonder Years series.
Like its predecessor, the re-imagined show hits the markers in the childhood-to-adulthood evolution: the conflicts with siblings; the camaraderie of friends; the relentless school bully; the first love; the first heartbreak; and the firm belief that parents just don’t understand—leading to a gradual awakening to the belief that sometimes, perhaps, they do. What distinguishes this telling, however, is that we see these everyman milestones from a Black cultural perspective.
The assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the pivotal cultural moments that plays out in the lives of the new Wonder Years characters. Though King died some 40 years before he was born, EJ didn’t just read about it in a textbook.
“I always say that I’m very much so blessed to have a lot of older relatives,” he says. “My great grandmother, who just recently passed away—she was going to turn 91—was there when the Civil Rights Movement really started as well as when it got heated and at the end.” His other great grandmother and his grandmother also witnessed different stages of the movement, he adds.
Even with a tragedy like King’s death as backdrop, the show still sets out to meld life’s bitter with its bittersweet moments. Some set the stage for bonding and life lessons. “Probably my favorite thing is how [Dean and his father] go fishing,” EJ says. “I get into a fight with [best friend Cory], and my dad thinks I’m [upset] about Dr. King; everybody’s babying me about Dr. King, but nobody knows that I’m mad about something completely different.”
By offering Dean a balm to help heal what he believes to be his raw emotions over King’s death, his father, in the moment, helps him put life’s small and large issues into perspective.
With the actor himself at the threshold of puberty, here are a few snapshots of his life so far: while his TV dad is a musician, EJ’s real-life father, Harold “Lefty” Williams, has also been in the entertainment arena as a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters. So, while Dean is often seen on the baseball field, EJ has a real love and appreciation for hoops. “Basketball is my favorite sport, but not necessarily because of our family background,” he says. “It’s my favorite because when my dad handed it to me, I really loved it.”
That competitive drive, peppered with a bit of sibling rivalry—a staple of coming-of-age stories—also plays out in the actor’s real life. EJ has an 8-year-old brother and a 15-year-old sister, and he says his family dynamic is all about the competition. On his dad’s side it’s basketball, he says, whereas his mom encourages the siblings to get jobs done first and done well. “So, whatever it is we’re doing, even if we’re just having fun in the house, if you’re not winning efficiently, it doesn’t count.”
EJ’s enjoying this pivotal moment in his life. Before the Wonder Years, he landed roles in the TV series Henry Danger and Danger Force as well as voice roles in several animated shows.“My biggest goal when I was younger was to always be on screen—live-action was always my goal,” he says. “So, now that I’m actually the star of the show it means more to me. It’s like I finally reached my goal and now I just have to maintain it.”
The Wonder Years airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC.