‘The Chi’ Showrunner Lena Waithe On Depicting Black Life In Chicago
Chicago’s South Side is getting the Showtime treatment in the network’s new series, The Chi, which premieres Sunday. The drama aims to portray present-day life on the South Side, said Chicago-born Lena Waithe, the critically acclaimed writer behind the series who became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing last fall for her work on Netflix’s Master of None.
Waithe said that while she grew up in Chicago, The Chi is not rooted in her own past.
“People assume that it’s biographical — this isn’t,” Waithe said Friday on Morning Shift. “It’s my take on black life in Chicago now, and it looks at what it’s like to be black and human in Chicago in 2018.”
Waithe said she and her team, which includes actor and musician Common, took extra steps to show a South Side that was authentic, with scenes shot in neighborhoods like Englewood and with music exclusively from Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West.
Morning Shift host Jenn White talked to Waithe about The Chi, how trauma can affect a community, and the importance of representation in Hollywood.
On growing up in Chicago
Lena Waithe: I actually had a really great childhood. I grew up in the house that my mom grew up in — a really tiny neighborhood just full of black people, a lot of them elderly, and it was very much like a community and a family. I played with kids who were the children of my mom’s friends when she was growing up, so it was really idyllic.
On why the timing is right for The Chi
Waithe: I think it’s important because we don’t have anything like this on television. You have shows with black people that are either really beautiful or really aspirational or really gritty. To me, all of those are valid, but I kind of wanted something that was in the middle and just really human: not that quiet but not that loud, and really honest.
On making audiences laugh in a drama
Waithe: That’s what life is. It’s why I think people are responding to the show the way they are, because no one’s life is all good or all bad, all comedy or all drama. It’s literally a mix of both. And because I’m a comedy writer originally and this is probably the only drama that I’ll ever write, that is a natural skill that I have.
There are things about life that are just naturally humorous, in my opinion, that I can kind of harp on, that maybe most drama writers may have to force because it’s not their comfort zone. For me, I live in a comedy space. It’s a really nice thing to add some levity and lightness to a scene that to me is already there.
On the impact of collective trauma on a community
Waithe: I think there’s this element of seeing a black body fall on a show and then it’s just about, “Oh, here are the good cops that come and solve it and move on to the next episode.” That’s fine. That’s a formula that’s worked for many decades in our country on TV because it’s easy to digest. But for me, I kind of want to live in that space with the family.
When you hear about — whether it be Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland — yes, these are people who we don’t really know but really grieve because we see ourselves in them. But, when we turn off the TV or finish posting on Instagram or retweeting the hashtag, their families are still living in that grief and trying to figure out how to move on with that member of their family no longer being there. And that’s what I really wanted to. I wanted to spend 80 percent of the time with the people, with the brown folks who are really being policed rather than with the police.
On being the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing
Waithe: It’s any TV writer’s dream. I think it’s our Super Bowl. You go to the show and take home the trophy, and it’s just an unforgettable moment. But to me, it was the culmination of all the things I’ve done and been through, and the experiences I’ve had, my personal story as well. And so, it was just a lot of things at once, and it was definitely a blessing from God.
I never thought I’d have that moment this early in my career, but I’m really honored to be a first and to have broken that barrier. My mission now is just to make sure I’m not the last. It’s about making sure that this industry and this town becomes more and more aware of these writers of color, and queer writers of color, and trans writers of color.
On media representation
Waithe: Media helps set the tone of society, and it’s a really important job. What we do is extremely important because the world watches, and that’s how they help determine how they think. For me, it’s important to depict people of color, queer people of color, trans people of color, all of that, to depict us in an honest way. There needs to be more truth, more honesty, and more groundedness in the way these stories are told.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire segment, which was produced by Meha Ahmad and Daniel Tucker, and adapted for the web by Arionne Nettles.