Lena Waithe knew that she wanted to write for television by the ripe old age of seven. Now, at 33, she’s not only penning award-winning shows, she’s putting out stories that represent people and parts of society that have often gone untold. After her “Thanksgiving” episode from Master of None won an Emmy, Waithe dedicated her win to her LGBTQ+ fam.
“I see each and every one of you,” said Waithe, who made history that night as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers—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.”
That message of community empowerment through authentic storytelling is at the heart of her new show The Chi, which airs on Showtime and is now streaming on CraveTV. And it’s a message that resonates even more in the age of Time’s Up—a movement Waithe proudly reps both on and off the red carpet.
We sat down with the mega talent to get the deets on everything from her new show to her engagement—plus some v. helpful advice on how to have tough conversations in this current climate.
Going beyond the headlines on Chicago
With her new show The Chi, which stars Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell and Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert, Waithe wanted to go beyond the violence and statistics that dominate media reports covering the south side of Chicago, where she grew up.
“I’m trying to express the community I felt while living in Chicago,” says Waithe. “It’s a thing that people don’t think about when they think about Chicago, but I felt like I was a part of a big extended family in the city.”
It’s not autobiographical, but some elements do come from her life
While Waithe still calls the south side of Chicago home, she says that unlike her Emmy-winning episode of Master of None, this show is not her life story—but it is inspired by it. For instance, Brandon (Mitchell) is basically her, she explains, just “swap out cooking for writing, male for female.”
Waithe says that some of the show’s themes also come from her personal experience. “In my family there were some issues of substance abuse so, that sort of gets folded in and being a child of a divorce and not really having my father around sort of gets folded in,” she explains. “Those are just themes that I know well and so I can’t not put it into what I’m writing.”
Waithe says it’s important to ask, “Why not a Black woman?”
There are numerous elements of The Chi that force viewers to check their own biases, such as casting a Black woman as the police chief, and Waithe says those were intentional.
“I always love where I can plug a Black woman in anywhere, and when that comes up I don’t say, ‘Oh that has to be a Black woman,’ I say, ‘Why not a Black woman?'” she explains. She’s also conscious about putting LGBTQ storylines on screen.
“Here’s the deal,” says Waithe. “I don’t like beating people on the head with the message, I don’t like standing on the soapbox.” That said, she envisioned certain aspects—like showing an everyday family in The Chi that happens to have two moms—early on when she was writing it. “It’s me just really trying to show the world as it is.”
Fun fact: The Chi had an all-Black writers room and, according to The Cut, Waithe is now mentoring those writers on their own projects.
The sisterhood of Time’s Up
When we sat down with Waithe, it was shortly after she and hundreds of actors took over the Golden Globes red carpet wearing black to put the spotlight on the prevalence of sexual assault and inequality in all industries. Some media reports credited Waithe with making sure that the movement is for more than just white women, but the writer-actor-producer says that she does not shoulder that responsibility alone. She points to other leaders in Hollywood like Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Rashida Jones, who are all working hard to make sure the movement is inclusive.
“We can’t look at this as just one group, it has to be all of us. It has to be inclusive. And, I think that the thing about Time’s Up is that we really demand that everyone be in the room,” says Waithe.
And standing in solidarity with such a wide range of actors and advocates is not only important, but inspirational:
“It’s really empowering and I really feel a real sense of sisterhood with these amazing, powerful, talented women who’ve had long careers—and some who are just at the beginning of their careers.”
Having those tough conversations
In a climate where complicated topics around consent dominate the headlines, Waithe says that we cannot shy away from these conversations with family members, colleagues and friends—even when they are uncomfortable.
“I get it, there are people that don’t understand or feel like it’s really complicated but from my experience, people want to be educated about it. They want to learn, they want to know the language, they want to know the do’s and don’ts in the workplace, and I think that’s really where you start,” she says. “It’s about stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we gotta have the uncomfortable conversation.’ We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing cause that’s not working for everyone.”
[Editor’s note: We talked to Waithe before the news about Aziz Ansari, who she worked closely with on Master of None, broke. But also, let’s remember, it is not her job to answer for him]
Walking into 2018 wearing sweet engagement sneakers
Anyone who has watched Waithe’s “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None knows that the holiday has a special place in her heart. So it seems only fitting that she chose Thanksgiving to propose to her longtime girlfriend Alana Mayo on a trip to Tokyo. While Waithe gave Mayo an engagement ring, she says that she didn’t want one in return. Since Mayo insisted on buying her something to mark the occasion, Waithe, a self-described sneakerhead, suggested a new pair of shoes that can only be found in Tokyo. “Now they represent that trip but they also represent her so they are like my favourite pair of sneakers,” she says.
The Chi streams Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CraveTV
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