Some television shows make your heart race -- they make you gasp for breath as you anticipate the next twist and turn. Then, there are shows that speak to your soul; they seep into your consciousness dredging up long forgotten memories. In her outstanding drama series, The Chi, Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe give the South of Chicago back to its people.
Told in a cinéma vérité style, The Chi shows everyday folks scratching, surviving and most importantly, living. Layering an extensive character study with a coming-of-age tale, Waithe seamlessly connects the lives of Emmett (Jacob Lattimore), Brandon (Jason Mitchell), Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert), and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). We watch as they confront themselves, their Black manhood, and one another after a violent event interlocks their lives forever. Over the course of the ten-episode first season, it’s Ronnie that makes the biggest transformation – leading him down a path that even Ntare Mwine didn’t see coming.
As I stepped into the infamous Blue Moon Café in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, I spotted Mwine seated near a window with a cup of tea in his hand; the actor stood as I approached. Unlike his character, Mwine’s face was bare, Ronnie’s infamous goatee and haunted eyes were gone for the moment. Instead, a bright and warm gaze greeted me. Mwine was eager to chat about the role that has changed his life most unexpectedly. The New York University alum wasn’t apart of the original cast of The Chi, nor was Ronnie a role he thought he could tackle. "I came on board the second round in the regular audition process," he remembered. "It was a role that I'd never done before, so I didn't think I was right for the part. But the casting director, Carmen Cuba, cast me in the show, The Knick, so I went. The audition scene was Ronnie high -- smoking on the couch. I had no idea how to even play this. I couldn't see myself doing it. I literally went to the audition just to thank Carmen for casting me in The Knick, because it had opened up so many other doors. I didn't do a great audition. I walked out and went back to the car. I got a call from my agent, saying, "She thinks you're right for the role, but she doesn't want to submit the tape she made, she thinks you can do a better tape." (Carmen) asked me to do a self-tape, but I was going to Uganda for the holidays. (I) came back, and never did the self-tape because I thought, “I'd love to do it, but I'm not right. They're gonna find someone from Chicago to do it.”
Photo Credit: Ryan Pfluge
More than feeling he wasn't exactly right for the character, Mwine was also hesitant about what Chicagoans would think of his portrayal. "Like New Orleans, like Brooklyn, Harlem, people are proud of where they come from," the New Hampshire native explained. "They certainly don't like other people coming in and telling them what to do. I have profound respect for that. As a Ugandan, people come in and try to tell Ugandan stories with people who appropriate things and get things wrong. I didn't want to fall into any of those traps. So, when I had the opportunity to play this role, I was terrified of making all those mistakes. I probably worked harder on this than I had on anything else because I couldn't take anything for granted and it's so important to me. I had to really work hard to get to the source because I didn't feel connected to the role. I didn't feel connected to the world; I didn't know anything about the South Side of Chicago."Though Mwine did live in Chicago briefly a couple of decades ago, things have changed drastically in the city since the ‘90s. "I lived in Chicago twenty-plus years before," he revealed. "I worked in the Steppenwolf Theatre, so that was back in ’95, and back when Cabrini–Green was still around. At the time, Candyman was the movie of the day, and for me, at that time, it just seemed like a foreign world, and a sort of pathological presumption of the place. There was a great divide between different worlds. I thought I took my time to explore, but I was so wrapped up in the world of the play. To come back now, years later, and play a character who could've probably grown up in Cabrini–Green and knew people there, and had actually seen the fall out of all the change happening, I tried to tap into some of that. I remember going to 79th Street, taking the bus. I took the train and the bus everywhere, just walking down and around. I was like, ‘This feels like Brooklyn.’"
Waithe’s focus on the characters and their individual journeys in The Chi is what stood out most to Mwine as he came to know Ronnie. "I wasn't a single paint on a canvas," he said earnestly. "There’s a range of color and experiences, and that's what's so wonderful about this. We get to see someone who is a victim of gun violence or perpetrates gun violence. We see the journey that he goes through as a result of that, and hopefully, somehow, feel a connection or empathy with him by the end of it. You never hear that story. We really get a window into the unexpected consequences of gang violence."
Much like the audience, Mwine has no idea where Ronnie would end up by the time the first season of The Chi wrapped – he simply learned to sit back and enjoy the ride. "We didn't get the whole season in advance," he revealed. "We got it script by script, so we didn't know what was coming next. I didn't know Ronnie's journey, and I think they were still figuring it out as we were going through the process. I was just thankful that he was there because he could easily have been killed. I think the thing that shocked me really out of the gate was when Coogie (Jahking Guillory) was killed-- I couldn't get my head around it. The way I rationalized it was that Ronnie didn't go out intending to kill. I think he probably heard this kid killed his son, and he tried to confront him and figure out what happened. Certain things can trigger people. You think you'll be rational and reasonable, but then, something will spark, and all that goes out the window. That's what happened at that moment. The way I tried to play it was the shock. It wasn't scripted that (Ronnie's) shocked; it just said he pulled the trigger. I decided that I couldn't see that he went out premeditated to kill him.”
Invested in peeling back the layers that lead to the core of who Ronnie is, Mwine was adamant about not creating a backstory for his character. Instead, he chose to use Ronnie's actions and the clues from his background to speak for themselves. "There's a lot about his past that's not on the page," the Queen of Katwe actor reflected. "You don't know anything about him. We know he has a grandmother, we know about Tracy (Tai'isha Davis), but we don't know why they split. We don't know long he's been hanging on the corner with those guys. We don't know a lot about this person. That's the difference for me in this character and other characters I've played."
Still, there was one thing about Ronnie that Mwine was certain about, and that was his relationship with his grandmother, Ethel. Played by Chicago native LaDonna Tittle, Ethel is an icon. “That was all her," Mwine laughed. "She is a force to reckon with. She is not the frail woman you see in the show, she drives a Jeep, and is a total badass. When you have a veteran like that, it's like you’re playing tennis. Then for me being a foreigner coming in to play with someone who's from Chicago, it just elevates my game. It brought me to a different level."
Moving forward, the Treme alum isn’t certain where Ronnie’s journey will lead him, but he hopes that his character will continue to intrigue those who've been watching from the beginning. "That's the creative mind of Lena," Mwine explained. "She continues to surprise us; I just hope that people from Chicago feel a connection to it. That's the only thing I was hoping for -- getting the local stamp of approval. There's nothing worse than going back to a town, and they're like, ‘You did us wrong.’ I do think with Ronnie, there's an opportunity to explore prison complexes and what it means to seek redemption for a heinous crime. That would be my secret wish that Ronnie’s locked up, and we really get to see the underbelly of it — not the romanticized version. They filmed on location, and I couldn't get the smell out of my nose. It's open toilets, the cell, body odor, everything. That's in the walls, in the concrete, on the iron. It's everywhere. I don't know how you convey that on film, but I think Lena will be able to find a way to do that.”
For now, Mwine isn’t sure how the experience with Ronnie and The Chi has transformed him just yet, he’s simply sitting back and enjoying fatherhood before his schedule reves back up. “She was born on the 13th of February, and I got this role on the 14th of February,” he smiled when talking about his infant daughter. “So, within 24 hours my world transformed in a way that I'm still digesting. I feel like I've been cocooned by her because I'm spending all my time catching up with her, because I left when she was six weeks for Chicago, and missed the first four months of her life. So, now I'm playing catch up, I haven't been out much. I'm shocked when somebody comes up and says, “Are you the guy from The Chi?" It's been surreal because I'm still digesting. This is the first time I've been offered roles — a series of roles that I've actually turned down. Also, there's other stuff that's still in the works. I haven't signed on the dotted line so, I can't speak on it yet.”
Mwine returns to Chicago in July for season two, in the midst of what will hopefully be a sticky hot summer. For now, he’s content with just taking it all in. As his star continues to rise, the playwright and documentarian won’t be able to stay hidden in the background much longer. As I exited the café at the end of our chat, yet another person quickly approached his table asking for a photo.
Season 1 of The Chi currently available on Showtime OnDemand.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.