With Showtime’s ‘The Chi,’ Writer Lena Waithe Hopes to Change the Conversation About Her Hometown

Lena Waithe Variety Magazine Profile The Chi
Brinson+Banks for Variety

Lena Waithe has a tough decision to make: where to spend the night of Jan. 7.

Master of None,” the Netflix comedy she stars in and writes for, is contending for best comedy at the Golden Globes, which will be held that evening in Beverly Hills.

But her passion project, Showtime’s “The Chi,” which she created and wrote, is premiering that night, and her writers are planning a viewing party.

“Champagne problems,” she jokes.

Waithe is no stranger to the awards circuit: She made history last fall as the first woman of color to win an Emmy Award for best writing for a comedy series for her episode of “Master of None,” titled “Thanksgiving,” which powerfully chronicles her coming-out story. The weight of the moment was not lost on her, and she delivered a forceful acceptance speech that had the audience on its feet.

Addressing her LGBTQIA “family,” she said, “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.” She added, “And for everybody out there that showed so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”

It’s those Chicago roots that fuel her new project, a 10-part drama about the ripple effects of gun violence and murder on members of a community — including an aspiring chef, Brandon (“Mudbound’s” Jason Mitchell); a teenage father, Emmett (“Detroit’s” Jacob Latimore); and a drifter named Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine).

One in a wave of auteur efforts hitting screens, “The Chi” (which hails from Fox 21) marks Waithe’s debut as a creator. The attention she got from “Master of None” will undoubtedly bring viewers to her latest project. “A lot of people really know ‘Thanksgiving,’ but my voice doesn’t just live in this one space,” she says. “There’s a bigger mission there.” Her fervor is palpable during a conversation at her Echo Park apartment, which doubles as her office. Books and magazines clutter every available surface; tucked among them is her trophy, just out of sight but prominent enough that she knows it’s there. “You’ve got to just keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward,” she says.

Frustrated with what she calls “foreigners” writing about her hometown, Waithe wanted to reveal the Chicago she knows — as well as the people who have been invisible. “They were never invisible to me,” she says.

She hopes the series will ignite if not a conversation, then a better understanding of the lives behind the headlines about the city’s skyrocketing murder rate. “I think the more the media dehumanizes us, the more people will be desensitized to our deaths; the more people see us as human beings, the more they will value our lives,” she explains. “So when they hear a story coming out of Chicago about a young black boy being shot and killed, it won’t just be background noise, but they will wonder what he had for breakfast that morning. They’ll wonder if he had an older brother. They’ll wonder what he liked to do for fun. I think when we start doing that as a society, we will put a stop to these senseless deaths.”

The “Thanksgiving” episode almost didn’t happen. Waithe had to be talked into turning her own experience into narrative by “Master of None” creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari.

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Ansari stepped aside on Emmy night to let Waithe take the microphone, a moment he says he’ll never forget. He says he knew the episode felt “honest and special” when they wrote it, but didn’t anticipate it would resonate so much — and credits Waithe.

“Any time we talk or hang out, I just want to write it all down because she is full of original, thoughtful, hilarious ideas that I want to see out there in some form,” he says. “I just love her as a person and love us working together. I feel blessed to have her as a collaborator.”

Waithe says she always knew she wanted to be a TV writer, and eventually made her way from Chicago to L.A., where she landed gigs on the writing staff of “Bones” and “How to Rock,” a Nickelodeon sitcom. But it was her web efforts that garnered acclaim: The viral video “Shit Black Girls Say” and the 2013 YouTube series “Hello Cupid” landed her on Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” list in 2014.

Gary Levine, Showtime’s president of programming, calls Waithe “a force.” “If we could have waved the magic wand in terms of timing, it’s so incredible to be putting her first created series on now that she’s getting her due,” he says. “It’s perfect timing.”

But “The Chi” has been simmering for two years; Waithe wrote the script on spec in 2015 and shopped it around with little expectation. “I just had to get it out of my body,” she says. As it made the rounds, it caught the attention of many tastemakers in the industry — including Common, who signed on as an executive producer on the strength of the writing.

“I really believe that storytelling can bring us closer to each other in life,” he says. “When you learn people’s stories and they’re told in a creative and truthful way, it makes you understand that community, that culture, more.”

Showtime was at the top of her wish list for potential homes because of “The Affair,” says Waithe. “It was such a beautiful way of telling a story that I thought, ‘They’re doing this, then they might be down to do what I’m doing,’ because I knew what I had written was not commercial. I knew it was not an easy sell.”

Levine — along with the rest of the Showtime execs — responded immediately to her voice. “It was just such authenticity, such honesty, such joy, such warmth, yet never sugarcoated. Just like she is,” he says. “We love to shine lights on subjects that haven’t been illuminated. To go behind the headlines of whatever the latest murder count in Chicago is. And go into the humanity of the South Side of Chicago through someone who lived it.”

The project hit a few stumbling blocks: The pilot had to be reshot, with many key performances recast, and Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope,” “Confirmation”) was brought in to direct. “I think we had something good, but I’m a big believer in going for great,” says Waithe.

Explains Levine, “We still believed in her, these characters, this world. We just thought we hadn’t hit the bull’s-eye. It’s still a very worthy target, so we did it again and felt much more like we’d gotten it right.” The show was picked up to series in January 2017.

Levine acknowledges that Waithe went through a learning curve in transitioning from comedy to drama (“The Bridge’s” Elwood Reid serves as co-showrunner). “But I think we definitely saw more muscles being flexed as we went along,” he says. “And I’m happy to say her vision that she carved out from the beginning we were able to stick to and realize over the course of the season.”

And the final product, he says, fits in squarely with his mission for Showtime, alongside Frankie Shaw’s “SMILF,” which is also in contention at the Globes. “It’s very exciting for us to be unearthing these immensely talented writers, both women who have not that much experience but really strong points of view and strong voices,” he says.

Like “Thanksgiving,” “The Chi” is a deeply personal story about Waithe’s experiences growing up in Chicago — she and her sisters were the only girls in the neighborhood. So much so that she named the characters after people she knows. “Then I’m not going to be cavalier about their storylines, or things that come out of their mouths,” she explains.

“The more people see us as human beings, the more they will value our lives. So when they hear a story coming out of Chicago about a young black boy being shot and killed, it won’t just be background noise, but they will wonder what he had for breakfast that morning.”
Lena Waithe

“There’s a lot of me in Brandon,” she admits — substituting her writing with his cooking. “My mother is not as troubled [as his is], but there’s still a disconnect, a lack of understanding of why I’m doing what I do.”

She also sees herself in Kevin (“Moonlight’s” Alex Hibbert), the streetwise kid. “I grew up hustling my mom and her friends, and seeing things maybe too soon that I shouldn’t have,” she says.

Ronnie, the drifter, is based on her uncle, who also struggled with substance abuse. “He was that dude on the corner in Chicago — goofing around, hanging out, B.S.-ing,” she says.

And Jada, Emmett’s tough-love mother (Yolonda Ross), is based on her own. She named her for Jada Pinkett Smith, who, after reading the script, offered her an open door for whatever assistance she might need. Waithe toyed with the idea of casting Pinkett Smith in the role but realized that move might overwhelm the project.

Common, who collaborated with Waithe on the music and also appears on-screen, admits they disagreed at times on the direction of the story — “when we both thought this is the way it goes in Chicago,” he says. “But it was all to make it authentic and true to the city and the people that we’re writing about.”

He sees a parallel between “The Chi” and last year’s Oscar winner “Moonlight,” beyond Hibbert’s casting. “‘Moonlight’ gave people a look into the humanity of a young kid who is gay and trying to find himself,” he says. “That humanity that the world got to see through ‘Moonlight’ is what I hope they get through ‘The Chi.’”

Levine compares it to David Simon’s “The Wire,” as well as NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us,” “and everything in between,” he says. “It doesn’t shy away from the grittiness, it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, and yet it’s so full of heart. I think that all came out of Lena, the fact that what seems bleak to us to her is full of warmth, full of color, full of life.”

Though Waithe ranks “The Wire” as one of the best shows on TV, she disputes the comparison.

“We don’t focus on the system; we focus on the people that are affected by it,” she explains.

“I think you behave in a way based on your surroundings,” she continues. “Everybody has a different form of survival, and the way Brandon survived is by burying himself in his craft, in his dream. Emmett has another way of numbing his pain, which sometimes can result in children, and women who are not as happy with him.”

Or his obsession with sneakers. Waithe wanted to shine a light on consumerism — “I’m not trying to be exploitative or further a stereotype,” she says. But she recounts a friend in high school who had kids with two girls at the same time. “I think there’s a reason behind the behavior, and I don’t think that we should look down upon it,” she says. “I think his life is valid. His children’s lives are valid. That’s the point I’m trying to get to without standing on a soapbox.”

Her talents are much in demand of late, both behind the camera and in front of it. She filmed a role in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” and just announced she’ll appear in season two of her friend Justin Simien’s “Dear White People.” But her first love will always be writing.

“I just never thought of myself as a writer that writes for myself, because I just rarely think of myself as an actor,” she says. “I sometimes will be reminded that I’m an actor at all.” She never considered creating a role for herself in “The Chi” — “the acting thing,” as she calls it, happened organically on “Master of None,” when casting director Allison Jones insisted she was perfect for the role of Denise.

Instead, her focus is on the second season of “The Chi,” should it be picked up, and reworking the pilot for “Twenties,” based on another of her YouTube efforts. And there’s a feature script she hopes to film next year, a love story that she calls “protest art.”

Ever aware of the battles for inclusivity (especially given the Globes shutout of female directors), she’s also making a commitment to support women directors — setting a goal of parity for “The Chi’s” second season.

“I think we have to actively change the way we do business, because it’s not fair to the little girls who are going to be watching the Golden Globes, who have dreams of being a director, whose dreams may be shut down a little bit when they watch the nominees,” she says. “I’m honored that I could be a bit of a light of hope, to break the barrier that we did.”