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Common and Lena Waithe on the Importance of Hope, Joy and Father Figures in ‘The Chi’

The Chi” executive producers Lena Waithe and Common both grew up in Chicago, Illin. during times when violence prevailed. Although gangs were prevalent and crime rates were high, that wasn’t all there was to their worlds, though. In 1983 Harold Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago, which Common said symbolized a kind of hope and aspiration for the community that is reminiscent in the new Showtime drama.

“Growing up for me, Chicago was violent and you had a lot of gang culture there — but you also had Harold Washington, who was basically our Barack Obama before Barack; he was our hope. And we also had Earth, Wind & Fire because Maurice White was from Chicago. So we had all of these different things that gave us culture,” Common told Variety during the premium cabler’s Televison Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Calif. “You still have people aspiring to take care of their families and to be something in the world. Those things don’t change, but some of the situations do.”

Common noted that some things have changed since his and Waithe’s time growing up in Chicago — some for the better, such as Barack Obama being elected the first black president, and some for the worse, such as the violence on the Southside becoming even more “handgun-driven.” In developing “The Chi” they “wanted to tell the stories of human beings from Chicago who experienced these things so you could understand and be in tune with these people.”

“The beauty of what ‘The Chi’ does is you also see how people overcome it and are still able to find joy, even in the toughest of situations and express themselves through their pain,” Common said. “Our country has put black people in a box where we fall under certain stereotypes, and it’s not that that’s all we are, but that’s how we’ve been depicted and positioned.”

“The Chi” takes place in present day and starts with a kid named Coogie (Jahking Guillory) make a rash, and ultimately bad, decision to snatch a chain from another boy who gets shot and ultimately dies. This action sets off a chain of other actions that result in quite a few characters witnessing violent events and having to grow up too quickly, with additional potentially detrimental decisions snowballing after.

Waithe shared that the way the kids speak in the show are reminiscent of how she spoke growing up because she was emulating what she heard her family members saying in the house. “They’re these little adults,” she said of the kids on the show. “They think they know everything, and then they also know they don’t know much. What, to me, was really interesting to show, is that gut innocence, but also the maturity that kids have in inner cities that they sort of are forced to have, because they are forced to grow up too soon, but at the same time, they’re still kids.”

An even younger boy than Coogie, Kevin (Alex Hibbert) witnesses a shooting in the premiere episode of “The Chi,” which puts him in the dangerous position of holding incriminating information about someone, fearing retribution and being having to decide if he’ll take action to keep himself safe.

“You don’t want those characters to be defined by those choices, and you really get to see the incubation of how these things happen and how somebody can get drawn into it,” Common said. “It’s like with dealing with therapy, and you go into ‘Well how did you become this person and what experiences did you have with your parents and trauma?’ You see the trauma these kids are going through to cause them to be the kid with the gun.”

Like many Common and Waithe knew when they were growing up, Kevin doesn’t have a strong male role model when the show starts. He is being raised by two mothers and an older sister who Common noted often acts like the mother figure. While he has a strong support system, he still needs the guidance of someone who looks like him but is older and wiser.

“As a black male growing up, I know how important it was to see older guys who taught me different things. Some of it was giving you advice, some of it was sports, some of it was how to talk to girls — not even instructions but just seeing what they did. You need a male figure; you need to get what that person knows. We need those examples,” Common said.

Kevin finds this role model in Brandon (Jason Mitchell), but the relationship is a “mutual exchange,” per Common, because Brandon is mourning the loss of his own younger brother. “They met each other in a crazy situation, but for him to have another little brother in a way, it allows his soul to come to peace with certain things. Fortunately Brandon is a good human being who can develop that bond with Kevin and be hopeful and help him succeed in life and do well in life,” he explained.

Despite the violent actions that bring these two young men together, both Common and Waithe stressed the importance of the show striking a balance and also showing some lighter moments, too.

“I wanted to make sure there’s a lot of levity in the show because the truth about black people is we’re masters of finding joy in the [face] of sorrow,” Waithe said. “I would never want to paint a picture of us as all dark because there’s so much light in the community.”

“The Chi” premieres Jan . 7 at 10pm on Showtime.

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