"This is the Chicago I know": A conversation with Lena Waithe

Salon talks to Emmy winner Lena Waithe about her vision of her hometown and her new Showtime drama "The Chi"

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published January 14, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Lena Waithe (AP/Charles Sykes)
Lena Waithe (AP/Charles Sykes)

At a certain point, anyone who grew up in a so-called “bad part” of any American city knows to expect responses that tend to be wildly out of proportion with their actual experience. Talk to anyone who grew up in Detroit, Boston, West Philadelphia, Baltimore, South Central Los Angeles or any other place with large black and Hispanic populations, places made familiar to the general public via movies and television. The locale may be different, but the responses tend to be the same.

“That must have been tough.” Or, “Wow, you’re lucky you made it out of there.” In this viewpoint, one reflected by America’s president, neighborhoods populated by people of color, including the South Side of Chicago, where Lena Waithe grew up, are environments to be survived and to escape.

Waithe, who made history as the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series, has heard reactions like these throughout her life.

“Hell yeah, [people] do it all the time,” she told Salon in a recent interview. Instead of letting that anger her, however, Waithe channeled her own response into a drama, Showtime’s “The Chi.”

Inspired by Waithe’s formative years, “The Chi” is a collage of stories about people living on Chicago’s deep South Side. The opening episodes are colored by a crime, but it’s an event, not the story’s engine. It is a tragedy that echoes through the lives of everyone in the neighborhood, and it depicts the resilience of life and living despite this.

“I just wanted to feel a human story that, even if you're not from Chicago, and if you're not black, you can still look at it and see the humanity in it,” she said. “A big thing for me was to [show] there's a real a sense of community there. I totally understand why people don't see it, because it's not something that anyone's ever portrayed on television.”

Waithe, who raised by a single mom with the help of a very supportive grandmother, spent a lot of time watching television as a kid. In creating “The Chi,” she drew upon a broad field of influences, ranging from Spike Lee’s 2004 TV movie “Sucker Free City” to “Downton Abbey” and “House of Cards.”

The writing credit that brought her to the attention of mainstream audiences, however, was her work alongside Aziz Ansari on the “Master of None” episode “Thanksgiving,” co-starring Angela Bassett as her character Denise’s mother.

The quiet, thoughtful assuredness of that episode, a coming-out tale doubling as an origin story for Denise and Ansari’s character Dev, also permeates Waithe’s drama for Showtime. Only in this case, Waithe is the tale’s mastermind, steering a staff of writers alongside fellow showrunner Elwood Reid.

In a recent Showtime press conference held at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins referred to Waithe as one of the industry’s “next generation voices.”

When Waithe came to Showtime with “The Chi,” he had no idea who she was, and she had yet to appear on “Master of None.” What got his attention was the way she portrayed a city that TV has popularized lately. Chicago has replaced New York as the subject of broadcast producer Dick Wolf’s latest franchises, with NBC serving as the home of “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago P.D.” Another spinoff, “Chicago Justice,” was shorter lived.

Showtime, meanwhile, features another side of the city in “Shameless,” although in that hit comedy the Windy City is secondary to the stories of its characters. The same is true of Netflix’s anthology series “Easy,” which views the city through the intimacy of a specific type of moneyed urbanites navigating the city via its cafes, restaurants and apartments. One storyline does venture to the city’s South Side, but the neighborhood featured happens to be one of the vast area’s wealthier and whiter enclaves.

Waithe is a passionate fan of “Easy,” but in “The Chi,” the tree-lined streets, rough pavement, weed-filled lots, modest churches, corner stores and bustling classrooms of the local schools have a hold on the people treading across them or living within. Director Rick Famuyiwa establishes a visual language in the pilot that emphasizes an aliveness in the place that feels as real as the obstacles and triumphs of the people living in them.

To those familiar with these communities, “The Chi” is a validation. To others who only associate neighborhoods like those reflected in the series, it’s a work that can feel as dizzying as it does eye-opening.

Nevins told critics that “she brought in a script that felt like a really interesting inverse to the crime shows that are set in Chicago where the characters that are generally the . . . objects of the investigation.”

Here, he added, they’re the main subjects of this show, “and she had really interesting things to say about them.”

Given the hyperbolic race-baiting that’s become par for the course on the political stage, the stories Waithe is telling in “The Chi” feel urgent, too. It’s not as if the examples she presents are particularly complex, either.

For example, although she’s the drama’s creator, she adamantly specifies that this is not her story. Evidence of this rests in the narrative’s focus on a quartet of male leads: Kevin (Alex Hibbert, of “Moonlight”), a kid navigating the same adolescent challenges as any other kids do, namely nursing a crush on one girl while evading the aggressive advances of another; Brandon (Jason Mitchell), an ambitious sous chef; Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a Lothario forced by circumstances to reassess his priorities; and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is luckless, homeless and prone to make terrible choices, including one whose repercussions unwittingly link these seemingly separate families.

In spinning these plots, the messages Waithe desires to convey are simple. “Little black boys were not born with a gun in their right hand, and a bag of drugs in their left,” she said. “They're born into a world with as much hope and promise as any other kid. But sometimes when you're in Chicago, and there's certain circumstances that affect you that you can't help, your life takes a different turn than you expected.”

Conversations of the moment revolve around television lacking in nuanced narratives centered upon women, and such a criticism has been gently posed to Waithe, one of the few women of color helming a series right now. But Waithe counters by leading the first series plot with arcs focused on male characters that hold significant meaning.

“Black men, I feel like, are prey. They have been so dehumanized,” she said. “I get it when people say, ‘why are the men at the forefront?’ It’s because the target on their back is bigger. But it’s in no way to take away from the women in the series.”

Every male character in the series is inspired by and even named for people she knew growing up. Mwine’s Ronnie shares a name with an uncle she knew growing up who struggled with substance abuse, was in and out of trouble with the law and spent a lot of time on the streets. “Someone may walk by him and think, ‘Oh, isn't that a waste?’

“But yet, he wasn't. He was a life,” she continued. “He was my grandmother's son, he was my mother's brother. He was my uncle, and I think to me, what I wanted to do is not apologize for his decisions, or the decisions that he made in his life, but to show the humanity. . . . To show that his life is valid, even though his life may not be one of prestige, or one that people may not be writing about after he's gone. His absence means something to my family. “

Waithe’s points may seem basic, but the fact that she’s the one making them is revolutionary. When her show is compared to “The Wire,” she quickly counters that “The Chi” is about people, not a system. But the simple idea that her level of character portraiture is being likened to the work of an auteur such as David Simon is notable.

More than this, it spotlights Waithe’s essential role as an author of the modern black experience. She envisioned the energy of “The Chi” as a conduit for channeling the spirit of James Baldwin, of Zora Neale Hurston, of Lorraine Hansberry.

“I really just kind of wanted to feel almost like cinema verite,” she said, “where you kind of waltz into their living rooms and live with them, and the city they happened to be in is the one in which was where I'm from. But I also feel like it could be Detroit. It could be Atlanta. It could be any number of cities. It's just that the slang's a little unique. The vibe is a little specific, because that's the world I know.”

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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