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Lena Waithe Comes Home

Fresh off an Emmy win, the suddenly in-demand screenwriter returns to her roots with The Chi, her new series about life on the South Side.

Lena Waithe
Photo: Roger Erickson

Lena Waithe Comes Home

Fresh off an Emmy win, the suddenly in-demand screenwriter returns to her roots with The Chi, her new series about life on the South Side.

Lena Waithe has no time to write. This is a problem for someone who makes her living primarily as a screenwriter. “Your phone is constantly going off, and someone’s asking something. Like, Jesus Christ,” the 33-year-old mutters as she sits for a mid-December interview at the plush bar at Allium in the Four Seasons on the Gold Coast. “I wrote on the plane ride here [from Los Angeles], which is not ideal.”

Waithe has been in high demand since claiming an Emmy in September—the first black woman to do so for comedy writing. She won for “Thanksgiving,” an episode from the second season of Netflix’s Master of None that focused on a character, played by Waithe, coming out as a lesbian to her family, much the same way Waithe did in her 20s.

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Now she’s in the midst of her biggest undertaking yet—The Chi, the much-anticipated new series she created and wrote for Showtime that premieres Sunday. Set on the South Side streets where Waithe grew up, it focuses on the interweaving lives of several male characters, including grieving father Ronnie, aspiring chef Brandon, aimless teenager Emmett, and love-struck grade schooler Kevin.

Even midinterview, Waithe’s newfound stardom is evident, as two young female fans sneak up to her. “Are you Lena Waithe?” one asks before requesting a selfie. Waithe obliges, but not without taking advantage of the opportunity to hype her show. “The Chi. January 7. Check it out,” she yells after them as they skitter off. “Make sure you got Showtime.”

A scene from the show’s first episode.
A scene from the show’s first episode, airing on Showtime January 7. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/Showtime

The Chi is a contemporary Chicago tale. What was your own Chicago story like?

I was raised by a single-parent mother on the South Side, and I lived in my grandmother’s house. It was really cool because I got to grow up in the same house that my mom grew up in. And I was in a neighborhood of kids who were the children of kids my mom grew up with. I think Chance [the Rapper] and I are from the same area. It’s funny—I never called it Chatham. I’ve always called it 79th Street or just South Side.

What was that area like when you were growing up?

When people think of the South Side of Chicago, they don’t think about where I’m from. It was sort of a pocket: this idyllic community of black people who took care of each other, knew each other, spent time with each other. Our next-door neighbor would come over all the time to watch TV with my grandmother. It was very familial. There is a lot of that in Chicago, which I wanted to portray in the show. Most folks are just trying to go to work every day and raise their kids and get to church when they can.

What were you like as a kid?

I was bad. I was running around all the time, talking out of turn, a lot of energy, and obsessed with movies. There’s nothing I loved more than going to the movies. I would be hyped. I remember going to The Wood and leaving my friend and my mom, who I came with, to go sit in the front row because I was so excited. I watched a ton of TV, too—Cosby Show, A Different World. I knew very early on I wanted to be a television writer. My teachers told me I was a strong writer and had a voice. I really leaned in to that.

Was there a particular movie or TV show that made you say, “OK, this is what I want to do”?

I remember watching Do the Right Thing, like, every day all summer. And School Daze was important to me, too. A lot of Spike Lee movies were. As clichéd as that sounds, the truth is, he was a lone soldier. There weren’t people doing what he was doing, in the way he was doing it.

In your grandmother’s house, there were three generations of women living together. How did that shape you?

I have an older soul because of it. And because my grandmother was in my house, I have a real sense of my history as an African American. I think it’s the reason why I’m so obsessed with the ’60s and history. She’s originally from Arkansas. She moved to Chicago for a better life and more opportunities. She was around when the civil rights movement was happening. My mother was born into a segregated America in 1953. That history is very much in my bones and in my clothes. I have a very proud black family. We have an angel on the top of our tree every year that my aunt painted black.

When you were 12, you moved to Evanston. Was that a big change?

A little bit, because I went from all-black to really diverse, in the best possible way. It wasn’t Skokie. I really enjoyed being around kids who came from different walks of life, different cultures, different economic backgrounds. It was “Oh, wow, I’m sort of opening up my eyes.” It laid the groundwork for me to live the life that I live and be on a show like Master of None, because [show cocreator and star Aziz Ansari] is not the first Indian guy I’ve ever seen. You know what I’m saying?

Why set The Chi in the present rather than the time period you grew up in?

It was never meant to be autobiographical. It was supposed to be about now.

And if it were autobiographical, you’d probably have a female lead.

Right. Although Brandon is very much like me. There’s a piece of me in all the characters. In Kevin. A lot of me in Emmett, that sort of “I’ve got it, I know what I’m doing.” It’s me telling a story about what it means to be black and human in Chicago, which I know a little something about. I know these people, I know how we talk, I know how we get down, and I know how we handle certain things. But it’s also about me trying to tell a story that isn’t just what I know.

Why focus on male characters?

Because black men are dehumanized. So much so that when they die, it’s background noise. You become desensitized to their deaths. I want to humanize the fuck out of these young black males. That way, people can’t ignore it when they hear another statistic about them being shot or killed. This is my protest.

There are a lot of women in the show, but they’re on the periphery, while the men’s decisions drive the story. Was that a conscious choice?

Yeah. The truth is, I feel like that’s the way it’s almost always been. I wanted to show that we feel the brunt of what’s happening. We are the ants and they are the elephants. But we still have to be the backbone of our communities. We bear a lot of weight.

What do you feel is missing in other portrayals of Chicago, like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or all these Dick Wolf shows?

Well, where is Dick Wolf from?

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New York.

So is Spike. I think they’re missing a writer who’s from the city, who grew up here, who struggled here, who worked here, who survived winters here, who hustled here. If you’re a foreigner, you’re always going to be a voyeur, a person on the outside looking in. I’m a person on the inside examining this world. I’m not passing judgment on it, not trying to make some of it better than it is. I’m just gonna tell what it is. My mom still lives here and my family still lives here, so I’m always connected to it. Chicago has such a huge impact on who I am.

How so?

I think it’s the hustle. There’s something about the city that I can’t even describe that’s just naturally in my bones. That’s all I know.

You’re taking a big creative leap with The Chi. Most of your other work has been comedic, but this is a drama. Why?

Because it wasn’t a comedy, you know what I mean? My comedic voice comes through a lot—I can’t help it. But I also wanted to challenge myself. This has been the first time I’ve attempted writing something like this. I spent a lot of time outlining. I had a chalk wall in my apartment at the time. It literally looked like True Detective in there, trying to figure out when so-and-so would bump into so-and-so, how things would happen. Hopefully, it plays beautifully.

On the set of 'The Chi' with cast members
On the set of The Chi (left to right): Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Ronnie), Alex Hibbert (Kevin), Waithe, Jason Mitchell (Brandon), and Shamon Brown, Jr. (Papa). Photo: Parrish Lewis/Showtime

Many of the characters are named for people you knew growing up or for family members. Why do that?

Because I wanted to handle them all with care. I grew up with a kid named Brandon and a kid nicknamed Coogie—I still don’t know his real name. My mother’s name is Ethel Laverne, so she’s in there twice. Ronnie, because my uncle was like that character. He had his struggles when he was alive. He went to jail. He had a lot of demons. But I gave the character a lot of his heart and a lot of his humanity. And Emmett is for Emmett Till.

For a lot of viewers, The Chi may be their only exposure to the South Side. What are you hoping they take away from it?

That there are actually human beings that live there. These people, their lives are valid. They’re hardworking, goodhearted people. Are there some who’ve fallen off the tracks and fallen from grace? Sure. But every neighborhood has that, just in different forms.

Was that a creative burden?

No. I like to put images in front of people and let them take away what they will. I just wanted to write real black people. Not TV black people. Not perfect black people. I’m happy when there’s positive images about black people. That’s great. But I want accurate images, because that’s more compelling. I wanted to make these characters so layered and so complex that you almost don’t know how to feel about them.

Was it weird looking at the city as a filmmaker versus as a resident?

A little bit. And because people shoot here so much, I wanted to find places that we hadn’t seen. There are going to be some places you see that you’re like, “That’s not on the South Side,” but we’re just trying not to shoot where everyone else has been.

The show already caused some controversy when residents of an area you filmed in saw that all the food from a convenience store set had been thrown away. What happened there?

Set food is not food we would ever give to anyone—it’s old and you don’t know where it’s been. The dates on the packages are often put on there in case the camera catches them. We don’t want to put anyone in danger. Myself and [co-executive producer] Common are trying to figure out ways to collaborate with people and go into neighborhoods where there are food deserts. The crew came in the day before Thanksgiving and handed out food in those communities. We want to go into these neighborhoods, but we want to do it with food we can trust.

I’m guessing the demands on your time have increased after your Emmy win. How have you been dealing with that?

I can deal. I haven’t changed—the energy around me has. But look, I’m with my lady. We spend a lot of time together. My village has not changed. And I’m working a lot. I’m writing a ton. Trying to get some other things up on their feet and on the air, to follow The Chi. I look at The Chi as my Grey’s Anatomy, if I can be so blessed, where it’s the first show in a series of shows that we come out with [as Shonda Rhimes did]—some I’ll write, some I’ll produce.

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What is your average day like these days?

A lot of press. A lot of phone calls—conference calls. Talking about creative stuff, talking to lawyers and agents about things we’re trying to set up.

So you’re a boss now.

Yeah. Maybe I always have been. I just made it to my own space.

Is that something that comes naturally to you?

I don’t mind being busy. And there’s a new thing, too, now with my writing: Because it’s so precious to get that time, I don’t let anything interrupt that’s not superimportant. We’re doing it for the people. There’s nothing better than introducing your art, your baby that you made, to the world. That’s what keeps me going.

Do you live with your girlfriend now? [Waithe has been dating entertainment executive Alana Mayo for more than three years.]

Yeah. She’s my fiancée.

Oh, congratulations.

Thank you. It’s new. We haven’t gone public with it yet. You can print it, though.

When did you get engaged?

On Thanksgiving.

Were you the one who asked?

[Snorts.] Yeah.

How’d you do it?

We were in Tokyo. It was the first Thanksgiving we’ve spent together. Normally she goes home and I stay in L.A.

Do it big.

I know, right? But it was super simple. It was super chill, laid-back, like her. She knew it was coming, she just didn’t know when. And it’s a good ring. I worked with a really cool jeweler. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re enjoying being engaged.

This seems like a magical period for you.

This is definitely a time when I’m very aware of the space I’m in. But I don’t want people to say, “Oh, Lena had a great year.” Because I’m trying to make 2018 bigger.

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