Warning: This article contains mild spoilers about the pilot of Showtime's The Chi
“It still feels surreal. That moment still lingers in my spirit,” Lena Waithe shared with me, describing her historic Emmy win — becoming the first black woman to receive the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for Master of None.
The actress, producer and screenwriter is the creator of Showtime’s new drama series, The Chi, which explores the humanity behind the headlines sensationalizing the South Side of Chicago, through a multitude of characters. Two murders in the pilot result in a trickle effect of sorts, impacting all of the different characters and bringing them together in more ways than one.
Photo: Todd MacMillan/SHOWTIME
The ensemble cast includes Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton), Jacob Latimore (Detroit, Sleight), Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Queen of Katwe), Alex Hibbert (Moonlight), Yolonda Ross (Treme, The Get Down), Armando Riesco (Bull) and Tiffany Boone (The Following). Sonja Sohn (The Wire), Jahking Guillory (Kicks), and Steven Williams (The Leftovers) are among the recurring cast members. Waithe executive produces with Common, Elwood Reed, Aaron Kaplan and Dope's Rick Famuyiwa, who directs the pilot.
Waithe says that the way Chicago is depicted in the news inspired her to take on this story.
“I’m not disagreeing with the news stories. They’ve got to do their job. They have to report on what’s happening in my city. But for me, I felt like no one was really looking at what was going on behind that and the people. They were just reporting on news, which is totally fair, but I wanted to put a human face on it.”
She says that’s not her acting as an apologist, but rather a humanist. “That’s me sort of saying, there are humans living in that city, there are people with dreams, there are children there, there are grandmothers there. I wanted to tell their story as well as highlighting what’s going on in Chicago and how both sides can be affected by what’s happening.”
According to Waithe, she was also reading a lot Baldwin at the time, which influenced her wanting to tell this particular story. “(I was) feeling like there is a story here, there is a show here, and I feel like I have to write. And I was a person who had never written a drama before. So, It was definitely a big leap, but I felt like I’m going to figure this out, I’m going to get it done, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. And I was grateful that Showtime and Fox 21 was like ‘we like what you’re doing and we’ll give it a shot.’”
In its first four episodes, The Chi delves into the everyday lives of multiple characters who are different, but intertwined in complex ways that most of them have not even realized yet. For Waithe, it was important for her to have multi-protagonist stories, which she says was inspired by Dear White People maestro, Justin Simien.
Photo: Mathieu Young/SHOWTIME
Pictured (clockwise from top left): Yolonda Ross as Jada, Tiffany Boone as Jerrika, Jason Mitchell as Brandon, Armando Riesco as Detective Cruz, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as Ronnie, Alex Hibbert as Kevin and Jacob Latimore as Emmett
“It was a form of storytelling that I wanted to use. I can’t just tell just one story about Chicago. I had to make it multi-protagonist because there are so many types of people in Chicago,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes for people to wrap their brains around this. For people of color, we have to tell multi-protagonist stories because we have to show we aren’t a monolith. On The Chi, we show the different facets.”
She also wanted to make it a point to tell the stories of people she describes as being in the “middle,” explaining — “I came from a middle/working class family, so that’s a world I know really well. I think that’s something we don’t often see. We see really rich characters or really poor characters. You relate to the people in the middle, who are making it, but they may not have everything they want. I wanted to show those people and their battles, dreams and struggles. I’m still gonna get tweets like ‘what about the rich black people in Chicago?’ and I’m like give me a second…if we get a Season 2, maybe we’ll do that.
Jahking Guillory as Coogie and Jason Mitchell as Brandon - Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME
Waithe and company assembled an all-star cast, led by Jason Mitchell, who gives a tour-de-force performance here as Brandon. One moment of this incredible performance thus far is an emotional monologue during the death of his character’s brother, Coogie. “Jason slays it. That was a phenomenal moment, and I’m so grateful to him for knocking it out of the park. It’s one thing to write that, but for someone to come in an elevate it...I can’t ask for more than that.” Other standouts here are The Wire star Sonja Sohn, who portrays his mother, and Moonlight star Alex Hibbert, lighting up the screen each and every time his young character, Alex, is in a scene.
Waithe discussed Brandon the other characters. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine’s Ronnie is based on Waithe’s uncle who recently passed away. “That character was my uncle, he struggled with substance abuse, he went to jail, he spent a lot of time on the streets. And I’m sure there were times when people walked by him and didn’t see him or think much of him. I wrote that character because I wanted people to realize those people have lives and families as well.
“Brandon is more like me,” she continued. “He’s got dreams, he comes from a family that doesn’t really understand his dream. He snags someone from the right side of the tracks, like myself. He’s caught between two worlds, which is the same thing a lot of millennials experience.”
Michael Epps as Jake, Alex Hibbert as Kevin and Shamon Brown as Papa - Photo: Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME
On Hibbert’s character, Kevin, Waithe said, “I really wanted to show the kids. There are kids in Chicago that act more like grownups, they out here cursing and seeing more than they should. They’ve still got a good family and they have to do right by them.”
As for Jacob Latimore’s Emmett, she adds, “He’s damn near every dude I went to high school with. He’s got a couple of kids, he’s out here trying to stunt. He’s not a bad guy, but it’s easy to judge him when you hear his story. But that’s a part of the reality; let’s show him as a human being.
Jacob Latimore as Emmett. - Photo: Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME
With Coogie, played by the talented Jahking Guillory, it’s all about how he stands out. “He’s such a unique character, so show that kid that doesn’t really fit in and has a mind of his own,” she said.
She also talked about the strong women characters on the show: Jada (Yolonda Ross), Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), Tracey (Tai Davis), Laverne (Sonja Sohn) adding, “I wanted to build a world and show these are the people of the city. I don’t think we are much like The Wire because we’re not focused on the system. I care about the community, not the cops policing it.”
Tiffany Boone as Jerrika and Jason Mitchell as Brandon. - Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME
In The Chi, “good” and “bad” are not clearly defined as most of the characters exist in a moral grey area, which Waithe says is on purpose.
“I don’t like writing characters that way, it’s very fairytale-ish,” she explained. “I tell people that I mentor that there’s no such thing as good and bad. Even if you meet someone who you think is a horrible human being, OK, you can say that; but if you follow them from birth until adulthood, you’ll see what happened to them or the reason why they are being the way they are. No person is all good or all bad. Is there a character that may come off as more so a villain? Yeah, but I’m not the biggest fan of that. There are things we have to do to keep the story going, but I hope in Season 2, if we get one, we continue to keep everyone grey. That’s a lot more interesting, and a lot of my heroes do that. Everyone is grey. No one should be hero or villain.
Sonja Sohn as Laverne. - Photo: Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME
She likens this ideal to her infamous Master of None episode. “When I talk about the “Thanksgiving” episode (of Master of None), I would tell people, I didn’t want to be the hero of my own story, because I wasn’t. My mom wasn’t a villain. We were just two people figuring out something that we had never experienced before. That episode is you watching us figure it out in not the most perfect way.”
On what she wants folks to take from the show in general, Waithe says, “Just the humanity in the city and that there are real people there. It’s not a jungle, and every black man walking down their street doesn't have a gun in his back pocket. Yes there is violence, yes there are complexities to the city — but for the most part, people are just trying to live their lives, be happy and find the joy in little things. And I’m telling it from an insider’s point of view.”
Shamon Brown as Papa. - Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME
Coming into The Chi, Waithe has a new title that precedes her — “Emmy winner."
“I’ll never forget what it (that night) meant for us as an industry, as a community; For black folks, for queer folks, for people who have dreams of working in this industry, those moments really mean something &mdash they say, ‘you deserve to be accepted, you deserve to have a seat at the table.’ It’s really important.
She tells us The Chi is just a beautiful reminder of my journey that’s going to continue to unfold, but just because she’s an Emmy winner now, that doesn’t mean you have to like everything she does, but she wants you to trust her.
“I don’t want anyone to think because I won an Emmy, that they should watch my show. No, judge it on its own merit. You may not love it. You may like it. For me, I need to continue to earn people’s trust as a storyteller. That’s our mission. When someone sees my name in front of a show, whether it says Emmy winner in front of it or not, I want them to say, ‘Oh, I trust Lena.'"
“And I’m not always going to be perfect, I’m going to make some slip-ups, some people may disagree,” she said, addressing response the upcoming Netflix film Step Sisters, that she co-produced, which has received some backlash after the trailer dropped for it dropped last week.
“At the end of the day, I need my community to roll with me and trust me and roll with me as an artist. Spike Lee made Girl 6, you know, it’s there! At the time, I really rolled with him, because that’s where he was as an artist at that time. We can’t stay in the same place. I don’t want to make “Thanksgiving” 100 times, I don’t want to make The Chi again. I want to do things that surprise and excited me, and do things that I haven’t done before. I hope audiences ride with us and give us a shot, because that’s the way we get quality. We haven’t overcome until we can fail like white people can. Let us trip up and give us another chance. My thing as an artist is to not strive to be perfect, but to strive to be passionate and to make you feel something. I don’t want to write a perfect script, that’s too hard. I want to make you feel something, and that’s what makes it perfect to me.”
The Chi airs Sundays on Showtime.
Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum.