Chicago is being used as a political pawn. Murder rates and gang violence are splashed across our newspapers and television screens with no consideration for facts, figures, and the people who live and thrive in the city. Lena Waithe’s critically acclaimed Showtime series The Chi, gives the city and the South Side, in particular, a chance to speak for itself. The Chicago native’s engrossing characters and words are what drew actress Tiffany Boone out of her acting hiatus and back to television.
A few days after The Chi was granted an early season two renewal, Boone and I chatted over the phone. The Baltimore native explained why the role of Jerrika Little shook her awake and reinvigorated her desire to tell stories. “I read it, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to be in this. How do we get me in this? Do it now,’ she recalled. “I auditioned, and I didn’t get it, and then they cast it, shot it, and then completely recast it. Here we are three years later.”
It wasn’t simply Waithe’s love letter to her hometown that drew Boone to the story, The Following alum connected with Jerrika because she found a kinship with the young woman. “She felt familiar to me,” Boone remembered. “I normally play characters that are very different from me. I’ve played quite a few murderers and a lot of crazy people. It was the first time I had read something that felt, really super close to me. (Jerrika) is a young Black woman trying to get her career together and trying to build this strong relationship with this man she’s in love with. She’s strong, funny, independent and complicated —it felt like me, it felt like my friends, it felt like my family, it felt like I knew her. That’s what made me want to play her. Then with Jason (Mitchell), we just understood each other from the beginning. It’s just a second hand with Jason and I. I think Jason is also in a situation where Brandon is the closest to him that he’s ever played as well. We brought a lot of ourselves.”
Thus far, The Chi focuses on four men, Emmett (Jacob Lattimore), Brandon (Mitchell), Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) and Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) whose lives intersect after the murders of two young men from their neighborhood. However, women are very much a part of this tapestry. “The women, at least in the first season, are orbiting them — we are the planets orbiting their sun,” Boone explained. “So, you don’t get to see a lot of our lives, outside of our interaction with them. I thought (the scene with Jerrika’s girlfriends) was great and I would love to do more of that. For Black women, our relationships with our girlfriends are so important and so vital to who we are. Your girlfriends are your refuge. What surprised me the most is when (the ladies) showed up to set — the friends. They were all natural too, and all of us were different sizes and shapes and colors. It was amazing to see the way they cast that and immediately we had a camaraderie.”
It has been quite a transition for the California Institute of the Arts alum who was ready to walk away from acting and try her hand at something completely different. “I was just drained,“ she emphasized. “A large part of being an actor is rejection. Sometimes you can only take so much. So that’s one part of it. The other part of it was I didn’t feel like there were stories being told at that moment, that were super interesting to me — that spoke to me and spoke to our community. Luckily since then, it has been such a change. So many amazing shows have come out representing all of the complexities of Black life. There’s Atlanta; there’s Dear White People, there’s Insecure, and even This Is Us. There’s Black-ish and now Grown-ish. There’s just so many stories now, and at that time, that just wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t feeling creatively juiced up. I was becoming bitter, and I just wasn’t loving it anymore. I thought, ‘Okay, take a break.’ I really didn’t know when it would end or if it would ever end. I was kind of okay with never going back to it. I needed an outlet where I could still be creative and make people smile without being auditioned for it. I started doing flower arrangements. I was doing that up until the time when I heard The Chi came back for a second round. I said, ‘Okay, let’s try a couple of things, but only things that I really love.’ The Chi was my first audition back from hiatus, and here we are now.”
It wasn’t simply Jerrika herself that Boone connected with, representation also drew her into the role and Waithe’s story. “I haven’t had a perm since 2007, and I haven’t straightened my hair since 2015,” she explained. “I was going to auditions with my hair, the way you see it in the show for the last few years. When I auditioned for Jerrika, I actually had big gray Marley twists in my hair. There’s not enough representation of young Black intelligent women, who are also sexy, and confident with their natural hair. That’s no offense to girls who have 3A or 3B hair. There are no girls with 4C hair on TV rocking their little afro, with a pencil skirt on, going to work, and having their man look at them like they’re the most beautiful thing in the world. This is not shown enough. That’s why we thought it was important to have that for Jerrika. I feel like a lot of people have connected to that, so I’m so grateful.”
With a second season already in the bag, Boone is excited to see more characters and their stories come to life. “There are so many directions all of these stories can go in,” she said. “I think you’re gonna see more of the connections between all of these people. For the women in the show, I really hope that we’re able to explore their lives separate from the men a little bit more in season two. I just think, women in general, Black women specifically are the backbone of this country. I don’t think that we have been shown quite as complex as we should be. All of the other Black shows that we see on TV right now are showing a very different side of the Black experience than The Chi. I think of all the examples we’ve had so far— showing inner-city Black life, you don’t really get to see the female point of view.”
Presently, Boone is just taking it all in. She’s returned to the craft that she loves in a way that serves her spirit, and it has inspired her to do even more. “There are a few projects that I’m interested in producing and possibly writing and possibly starring in,” she revealed. “I’m not too worried about what’s coming next to be honest. I like to live in the current moment.”
The Chi airs Sundays at 10 PM ET on Showtime.
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