With 'The Chi,' Lena Waithe aims to 'humanize the headlines' of her hometown's high homicide rate

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The cast of <em>The Chi</em>. (Photo: Mathieu Young/Showtime)
The cast of The Chi. (Photo: Mathieu Young/Showtime)

Lena Waithe not only thinks you can go home again, she believes you should.

In 2015 — before she earned an Emmy for co-writing the 2017 Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” inspired by her own coming-out story — she was inspired to write the pilot for the new Showtime series The Chi after seeing one too many news accounts of murders occurring on Chicago’s South Side, where she grew up. Premiering Jan. 7, it’s an ensemble tale about the lives of a disparate group of people suddenly linked by the shooting of a high school basketball star.

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“I wanted to take my stab at being a reporter who is from the city that I wanted to report on,” Waithe explains. “I felt I had something to offer because I was from there, and I’ve known these people my whole life. I wanted to help tell their side, to go beyond the news stories, to humanize the headlines.”

Waithe, who previously worked on Bones and Dear White People, admits it was easier said than done. She chatted with Yahoo Entertainment about making the transition from full-time comedy writer to drama creator/writer/executive producer, shooting in her hometown, what she hopes people take away from the show, and what, if anything, is autobiographical.

What motivated you to create this show?
There are hundreds of homicides in Chicago every year, and many happen in the neighborhood I grew up in. The Chi is basically the story of the ripple effects of one murder. It links a group of people. Black people are still being dehumanized, so much so that people are desensitized to us dying. I also wanted to show a well-rounded view of a small section of the city and the people who live there. I don’t try to paint a perfect world. I’m not shying away from the issues that we face in our community. I wanted to tell the story of the neighborhood I grew up in and the people I know there. How each of the characters who survives this imperfect world is unique [because] black folks are not monolithic. We don’t all think the same, dream the same, walk the world in the same way, and I think that’s why I wanted to tell this as a multi-protagonist story. You can see how [they] all bump into each other, but how [they] all have different ways of getting through this thing called life. To collide over something tragic, I think, happens a lot in Chicago.

I really like that we get to see the why behind people’s actions, including a killer’s.
Most of the time when you hear about a homicide, especially if you don’t live [where it happened], you only hear how a shooter killed a kid. You don’t know his story or what drove him to do that. I’m not making excuses or not apologizing for them, but I wanted to humanize [those] that get killed and the person who pulled the trigger. Sometimes it’s just senseless; sometimes people have a reason, sometimes they are victims of circumstance, their environment, and society. We also have a tendency to sanctify the victim’s life — because they’re gone, they were perfect, and the person that killed them is the devil. The tough thing [here] is you can’t help but be charmed by and feel for [our killer]. That’s the position I wanted to put the audience in. I wanted them in a place where you don’t judge anyone — not the dead, the living, or the shooter. We all have things about us that are great and we have flaws. My bigger mission [than] to entertain is to mix all those things up in every single character and make you see them as human and maybe realize that we all aren’t so different.

Lena Waithe poses with her Emmy (Photo: Eric Jamison/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)
Lena Waithe poses with her Emmy (Photo: Eric Jamison/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

Variety named you one of 10 comedians to watch in 2014, and last year you won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. There are funny moments in this series, but overall it’s pure drama.
The story lends itself to a dramatic setting. It’s the first and probably only drama I’ll ever write. I still wanted levity in there, though, because that’s my voice and who I am.

Was the process different when you sat down to write drama instead of comedy? Is one easier?
It was a little different. The biggest thing for me was the outlining process of the pilot. This story is very much like a puzzle, and there are a lot of characters. It really was a matter of figuring out when did this character bump into this character, when do I reveal this thing, how do I unveil that, and when does this major thing happen and how. The outlining process of how things unfolded was long. Writing came quickly after that, because I spent so much time outlining and doing character work. For comedy writing, things move much faster, and it comes more easily to me. For dramas, it’s a little bit more about revealing information in a different way because you do have more time and more real estate. Because getting the characters right was so important to me, I did a lot of character work first, and I named a lot of them after people in my life. Laverne is my mother’s name. Ronnie is my uncle’s name. Brandon and Coogie [are] names of kids I grew up with. A big thing for me was to put the names of people I know on these characters so that way I’m writing them with a real sense of care and love.

Were there other series that you looked to as a guide?
It’s funny, much to dispute popular belief, I didn’t watch The Wire like that. It wasn’t something I referenced, even though I think The Wire is a great show. A lot of people will compare it to that show, I’m sure, and assume that, but that isn’t true. A big show I’m really obsessed with is House of Cards. I still really, really admire and love it. They do a really good job, specifically in Seasons 1 and 2, of pacing and keeping you hooked. I also really love Downton Abbey. I know it’s a little soapy, but it’s beautiful character work. The Practice is an oldie but goodie. The way they reveal things and the way they develop relationships is really beautifully done. ER is a favorite. The West Wing is really phenomenal. Those are the hour-longs that I really looked to and studied.

Do you think you could tell this story better than someone who was not from the South Side or not African-American?
If we don’t tell our stories in a very honest and real way, other people will tell them incorrectly and from the vantage point of a voyeur. The meaning and the effects will be diluted, and they will be less important and less human. If you’ve never been a black person coming up on these streets, a kid having sex too soon or seeing things he shouldn’t, been around addiction, or working a job you don’t like but you have to keep because you had a kid before you were ready, you can write the story but you will get things wrong. For me, this is where I’m from, and these are people I knew. My family is still there, so I have very strong ties to the city. I’m based in Los Angeles now, but that city is a part of me. It always will be. [Executive producer and actor] Common feels the same way. I think Kanye [West] had that phrase, “It doesn’t matter where you live, Chicago is always with you.”

Was that why it was important to shoot the whole show there?
Yeah. It’s funny, because people have asked if it was difficult to make that happen, and I’m like, “No, it wasn’t even a conversation.” David [Nevins, the president and CEO of Showtime] would never think of bringing up the idea of not shooting in Chicago. I was very lucky that I never had to have that battle. It was always very clear that we were going to film there.

Were there authentic locations that you knew when writing and conceptualizing the show needed to be used? Maybe the chicken place?
That’s loosely based on Harold’s Chicken, but it’s not an actual restaurant. We wanted to show places like that, locations that all of the characters would have in common and that were run by people who could be your uncle. We wanted to have a familial-type vibe. The one place that I really had to write in for sure was the Rink, which is a roller-skating rink that I went to as a kid. Roller-skating is a really big deal in Chicago. A big thing when deciding locations was to find places that audiences haven’t seen a million times. There’s a lot of filming in Chicago, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t repeat too much. Sometimes we go to places that might not be exactly where we say it is just because we don’t want to have the same backdrop as other shows that film in Chicago.

You mentioned that some of the characters are based on and named after people you knew. Should people assume this is autobiographical?
Not exactly. Some people are based on people I knew back in the day. And certainly I was around a lot of this stuff as a kid — like I went to a high school where the graduating class had nine pregnant girls and some already had kids. Coogie kind of represents the artist in me as the kid with big dreams and the big personality. Jada is loosely based on my mom as well, although my sister and I didn’t have kids young, and my sister has a kid now who my mom babysits often, so that’s different than the character. This is far less autobiographical than the stuff I do on Master of None or the “Thanksgiving” episode.

This is a very deep well of characters and storylines. Do you have a favorite, or is that like picking the best child?
No, as a creator they all have a special place in my heart. If I wasn’t entertained by it, I wouldn’t want someone else to watch it. I wanted to create their unique stories and do things that we haven’t seen before, like Brandon being a chef, like the kids in the school play, like Emmett having all these girls and trying to figure it out, or Ronnie’s struggle with substance abuse and the woman he’s always loved and lost. He wants to get back to the man he once was and to her, and so he does something terrible in order to do that. I’m not attached to one storyline in particular. I wanted to write things that you could connect to. It’s a really important thing for me that no matter what story we dropped into, [the viewers] would be interested to lean in. I did love writing Ronnie and Coogie.

Does the positive response you’ve had from fans and critics for the “Thanksgiving” episode and your Emmy acceptance speech push you to find more socially responsible projects?
I hear what you are saying about being a person in the position I am in after the great year that I had, and it definitely gives me more of a sense of freedom to write whatever I want and see what happens, and an extra confidence. But to an extent I have always been that kind of writer. I always wanted to write what I knew and I felt that responsibility to be real and honest. You can entertain and make a difference at the same time, if you get it right.

The Chi premieres Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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