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Lena Waithe, Common Talk ‘The Chi,’ Cultural Change and the New Black Renaissance

The entertainment industry is in the midst of a cultural transformation that is driving a new renaissance for African-American artists, Lena Waithe and others observed Friday night during a panel session for Waithe’s Showtime drama “The Chi.”

Cast members and producers gathered at the DGA Theatre for an FYC event that featured “Chi” executive producer Common, Rick Famuyiwa (executive producer and director of the pilot episode,) co-star Jason Mitchell, and moderator Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out.”)

Waithe recalled writing the drama’s pilot script two years ago.

“I wanted to talk about Chicago, not about cops who patrol the city but about those who are patrolled by cops,” she said.

Common recalled hearing good buzz about the script, originally titled “Chi-rac.”

“I read it and it was one of the most poetic ways to get into black humanity. It was not stereotypical. Lena’s story let people know us as human beings,” he said. Common came up with the title “The Chi.”

Describing the challenge of crafting the first season, Waithe said, “You’re a group of people trying to figure out who you want to be, trying to make one thing.” As for season two, Waithe would only reveal, “It’s gonna be blacker and more authentic” with new showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis at the helm.

The importance of representation in media was also discussed as Waithe and Mitchell remembered watching black actors on TV when they were young. Mitchell recalled, “Imagine if you’re nine years old and you see yourself on TV – it’s important to see that reflection.” Waithe agreed.

“I watched TV all the time. I felt so close to the black people on TV: Whitley Gilbert (“A Diff’rent World,) Fresh Prince, Martin, those people were important to me as I learned what my reflection was,” she said.

Common offered an eloquent observation: “Storytelling brings down walls of racism. ‘The Chi’ shows the humanity of black people.”

Waithe took a slight diversion as she talked excitedly about attending the Vanity Fair Oscar viewing party and Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Oscar night party, and being struck as she looked around glitzy events packed with talents such as Jordan Peele, Drake, Angela Bassett, Janelle Monae, Mary J. Blige, and Donald Glover. She drew a parallel to 20th century African-American artistic giants.

“This is it! We are in the room. The renaissance is back, but we don’t exist without James Baldwin, without Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry,” Waithe said. “Whenever I get weary, I remind myself we are descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage. We are descendants of those who not only survived the civil rights movement, but those who crafted it.”

The conversation turned to how the African-American artistic community supports one another at a time of rapid change in the culture and in the entertainment industry.

“The support for one another – I didn’t see it seven years ago,” Common said. “Ava DuVernay at the NAACP Awards said ‘I have four words: Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther.’ There’s no dissension. Issa Rae can support Lena, Lena can support Ava. It feels good to have that type of support for one another.”

As the panel drew to a close, Howery noted the importance of building on artistic successes like “The Chi,” “Black Panther,” “Girls Trip,” and “Insecure” and the need for black-owned networks and studios. Waithe agreed.

“Now the industry is coming to the source. They have to come to us,” she said. “We don’t follow the culture, we are the culture. We deserve a space.”

(Pictured: Lena Waithe)

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