Lena Waithe created “The Chi” — a new Showtime drama about how tough life can be on the South Side of Chicago — after watching a news report about gun violence in her hometown.
“They were walking through the neighborhoods that I lived in, been around,” the Chicago-born actress and producer recalls of the broadcast she caught from L.A. a couple of years ago. “I didn’t know the people the guy was interviewing but I felt like I knew them and I felt like I wanted to tell their story.”
Waithe — 33 and best known for playing Denise on the Netflix series “Master of None” — wanted to delve deeper into their lives, beyond the violence.
“That’s where I’m from, and I want to tell our story in a really good way and show the humanity,” Waithe tells the Daily News.
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She acknowledges that the Windy City has it problems — it’s often referred to as Chiraq because of its gun violence, and about 650 people were murdered in Chicago in 2017 — but says there’s more to the city than its ugly statistics.
That was the impetus behind “The Chi,” premiering Sunday. Waithe and rapper Common are one of the five co-executive producers in this coming-of-age story.
Stars include Jason Mitchell as Brandon, Alex Hibbert as Kevin, Armando Riesco as Detective Cruz and Jahking Guillory as Coogie, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as Ronnie, Tiffany Boone as Jerrika, Yolonda Ross as Jada, and Jacob Latimore as Emmett.
In September, Waithe garnered headlines when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the beloved “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None,” which was loosely based on her own coming out story.
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Waithe moved many with her acceptance speech, in which she thanked the LGBTQI community. “The things that make us different, these are our superpowers,” she said at the time. “Every day, when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world — because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
The actress, producer and screenwriter, who’s engaged to content executive Alana Mayo, tells the Daily News she wanted to share her win with the LGBTQI community.
“I felt this was for us and people of color,” Waithe says. “We hadn’t really seen our story told in an honest way, but it was coming from someone who lived through it, so I’m just grateful that it touched so many people and I could really share that moment. Because I felt like it was all our moment, like we all won.”
Fans loved the episode because of its honest portrayal of the coming out process.
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“You’re not forcing anything,” Waithe says. “You’re not being preachy in any way. You’re just sort of telling your story and, the truth is, we’re all a lot more alike than we are different. When everyone shares their truth, it’s almost inevitable that other people can connect and relate.”
Waithe adds that she feels a sense of responsibility to tell these stories, explaining there are many people of color who are closeted, and for reasons including family pressure, don’t feel comfortable coming out.
“I try to lead by example and show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there is no better way of living than authentically,” she says. “It saddens me because I think everyone has the right to live their lives out loud.”
Waithe got her start as a TV writer, but audiences will get to see more of her onscreen this year in the film, “Ready Player One,” directed by Steven Spielberg and due out in March.
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Waithe says that when she received a call from Spielberg’s casting director, she immediately said yes just to work with the direction/producer. She called that shoot an “out of body experience.”
And for the future, Waithe would love to produce more shows and encourage more writers.
“I think that really excites me,” she says. “To help introduce new voices to the world. The truth is, there’s so many people of color, queer voices, voices of women, so many stories to tell. I want to be helpful because I think they’re important and they’re valid.”
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