Magazine article Variety

Chicago Justice

Magazine article Variety

Chicago Justice

Article excerpt

Lena Waithe has a tough decision to make: where to spend the night of Jan. 7.

"Master of None," the Netflix comedy she stars in and writes for, is contending for best comedy at the Golden Globes, which will be held that evening in Beverly Hills.

But her passion project, Showtime's "The Chi," which she created and wrote, is premiering that night, and her writers are planning a viewing party.

"Champagne problems," she jokes.

Waithe is no stranger to the awards circuit: She made history last fall as the first woman of color to win an Emmy Award for best writing for a comedy series for her episode of "Master of None," titled "Thanksgiving," which powerfully chronicles her coming-out story. The weight of the moment was not lost on her, and she delivered a forceful acceptance speech that had the audience on its feet.

Addressing her LGBTQIA "family," she said, "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." She added, "And for everybody out there that showed so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know."

It's those Chicago roots that fuel her new project, a 10-part drama about the ripple effects of gun violence and murder on members of a community - including an aspiring chef, Brandon ("Mudbound's" Jason Mitchell); a teenage father, Emmett ("Detroit's" Jacob Latimore); and a drifter named Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine).

One in a wave of auteur efforts hitting screens, "The Chi" (which hails from Fox 21) marks Waithe's debut as a creator. The attention she got from "Master of None" will undoubtedly bring viewers to her latest project. "A lot of people really know 'Thanksgiving,' but my voice doesn't just live in this one space," she says. "There's a bigger mission there." Her fervor is palpable during a conversation at her Echo Park apartment, which doubles as her office. Books and magazines clutter every available surface; tucked among them is her trophy, just out of sight but prominent enough that she knows it's there. "You've got to just keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward," she says.

Frustrated with what she calls "foreigners" writing about her hometown, Waithe wanted to reveal the Chicago she knows - as well as the people who have been invisible. "They were never invisible to me," she says.

She hopes the series will ignite if not a conversation, then a better understanding of the lives behind the headlines about the city's skyrocketing murder rate. "I think the more the media dehumanizes us, the more people will be desensitized to our deaths; the more people see us as human beings, the more they will value our lives," she explains. "So when they hear a story coming out of Chicago about a young black boy being shot and killed, it won't just be background noise, but they will wonder what he had for breakfast that morning. They'll wonder if he had an older brother. They'll wonder what he liked to do for fun. I think when we start doing that as a society, we will put a stop to these senseless deaths."

THE "THANKSGIVING" EPISODE almost didn't happen. Waithe had to be talked into turning her own experience into narrative by "Master of None" creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari.

Ansari stepped aside on Emmy night to let Waithe take the microphone, a moment he says he'll never forget. He says he knew the episode felt "honest and special" when they wrote it, but didn't anticipate it would resonate so much - and credits Waithe.

"Any time we talk or hang out, I just want to write it all down because she is full of original, thoughtful, hilarious ideas that I want to see out there in some form," he says. "I just love her as a person and love us working together. …

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