When it comes to making a show about Chicago's South Side, Lena Waithe gets it because she’s lived it.
For her first major solo project, The Chi, Waithe tapped into the place that shaped her — the South Side of Chicago — to present a version of her city that's rarely seen on the evening news, one that's both sprawling and deeply intimate. The Showtime drama, which premieres on Sunday, January 7, centers on a group of strangers, from young teens to adults, all dealing with the fallout of a neighborhood tragedy. But The Chi isn't about violence; it's about the people who carry on in spite of it.
“I hope younger viewers really see themselves. I hope they look at me [and] go, ‘Yeah, she got us, she ain’t sugarcoating, she’s showing what’s really going on, she’s showing what’s really good,’” Waithe told MTV News at the show’s red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. “But at the same time, I’m showing them not as just a bunch of rascals.”
Of course the show creator doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of living in the South Side, either. Much like she did for her Emmy-winning "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None, Waithe pulled from her own life experiences. "I’ve been there," she said. "I’ve been that kid. I’ve done those things. I’ve done stuff when my mom left for work, you know, but I’ve also gotten my act together as well. So I know them, so I hope they look at it and they go, 'Yeah, she gets it, she’s been there.’"
To balance the grit of the South Side, Waithe dove deep into character development, creating a breadth of real, complex protagonists who are as vivid and colorful as the city itself.
For example, Jacob Latimore's character, Emmett, is the guy who looks the part of a young adult, but struggles to act like one. He has no qualms about dropping money on a sleek new pair of sneakers, but still rushes to hide his hookup under his bed when his mom comes home. (Dress for the job you want, right?)
Regardless of where you're from, we've all known — or been — an Emmett, and through his character Latimore hopes viewers can walk away with a better understanding of what it's like to grow up in the South Side. "Sometimes when a city is looked at as the most violent in the U.S., you kind of dehumanize that place," Latimore said. "We want people to relate to the sneaker hustle, the baby mama drama, and how a lot of our characters want to do better, but we’re in an environment where we just can’t do better. There’s something always rocking us, and that’s what we wanted to capture.”
Straight Outta Compton breakout Jason Mitchell (Brandon) agrees with Latimore about the relatable plight of the characters, both despite and because of some of the more mature subject matter. (The show does not gloss over the very real threat of gun violence in the neighborhood.) "The thing is, when you find out about these murders and these different situations [in] the hood, a lot of times it is the younger people," Mitchell said. "I’m from New Orleans. If you make it to see 25, you’re already considered an OG. Like, 25 — you’re just being able to rent a car!"
To illustrate just how real these characters are, Mitchell's Brandon — the put-together young adult who succeeded in creating a life off the street by working his way up in the kitchen — comes off as semi-autobiographical. "I was a cook for six years, and my best friend was killed and that was why I became an actor. I just wanted new friends," he said. "So Brandon is me, he’s just from a different city."
In playing Amir, a first-generation American and one of few non-black people of color in the neighborhood, Behzad Dabu interpreted his character to be the link between his immigrant father and the South Side community. With a similarly empathetic approach, viewers who can't relate to baby mama drama or life on the street will connect with the very real emotions these characters feel.
“There’s honesty, there’s loyalty, and there’s betrayal and hurt and pain," Dabu said. "These are things that we all feel, they’re human themes, and to see them in a setting that we’re not used to is how we can bridge gaps.”
These commonalities are exactly what Armando Riesco (as Detective Cruz, a sensitive police officer who doesn't quite fit the South Side cop stereotypes) thinks will draw non-Chicagoans into a world that is so different from their own. “If you grow up in Greenwich, Connecticut, you still have dreams, you still have things you want to do with your life, you still have obstacles that you need to overcome," Riesco said. "They might not be exactly the same obstacles that you have, but you’ll slowly start seeing reverberations and echoes of your own life even though they’re completely different."
Ultimately, the show explores the power of choice, regardless of circumstance. “In this TV series, you see one choice can take you this way or that way,” Common, an executive producer on the series and guest star, said.
"I always knew that in my life, like I always played the middle in a way where I grew up around, on the South Side of Chicago. There were gangs there, there was struggle, but it also was hope and it also was spirituality, and I knew that I had to go in a way that was toward my dreams, so I want young people to know to go toward their dreams when they see it."