Local native Lena Waithe feels distinctly qualified to tell stories of ‘The Chi’

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Jason Mitchell as Brandon in “The Chi,” standing next to a streetside memorial to his character’s murdered half-brother. | Showtime

A couple of years ago, Lena Waithe was watching the news in her apartment in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. At that point, the Chicago native was best known for her comedy work, especially her acting and her Emmy-winning writing in the “Master of None” series with Aziz Ansari.

“Suddenly on the TV, I see this story about [Chicago]. The subject was bad: Young black people from Chicago — really young kids — were being interviewed about all the problems with gun violence.

“The reporter interviewing them was a young white guy, very well-meaning, and I had no issue with him or his questions. But I got to thinking. I know these people. I know those streets. I know that block. One of the kids in the interview had a gun in his backpack, and that got my wheels turning. I always think in terms of character — and I realized there was a story here that needed to be told.

“And, who better than me? I’m from Chicago. I know that South Side world of Chicago as well as anyone.”

That was the genesis of “The Chi,” the new original series debuting on Showtime at 9 p.m. Sunday. (The debut episode may be viewed now free on Facebook, YouTube and sho.com.) Starring Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Jacob Latimore (“Collateral Beauty”), the show features a large ensemble cast representing a cross-section of the life and times in Chicago’s contemporary South Side.

Waithe, who sorts out all the plot lines on “a chalkboard in my apartment — making it look like ‘True Detective’ ” she said with a laugh, was equally inspired by the fact that at the time she was “reading a great deal of James Baldwin, but then I’m always reading Baldwin. He’s such an inspiration for me. My point, in my own way, and in this medium of television, I was trying to get across some of the issues and themes that Baldwin so beautifully articulated in his writing about the black experience in America.”

From the get-go, Waithe’s dream was to film the entire “The Chi” series in the Chicago neighborhoods where it takes place — a “drama series that interconnects so many lives of people struggling with coming of age, finding their way, overcoming poverty, all set against a backdrop of violence and crime. While I want to show the whole story of those people’s lives, I also wasn’t going to ignore the stark reality of the bad things happening in Chicago, as well as the good.” It was a belief shared by Common, Waithe’s fellow executive producer and fellow Chicagoan.

To her relief, Showtime CEO David Nevins “was always on board with us doing it in Chicago. There is no other place like Chicago. I’m glad he immediately figured that out.”

Lena Waithe | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Lena Waithe | Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Waithe admitted readily, “I don’t know how to fix the problems plaguing the city, but I do know if we shine a light on all of it — and show how violence affects those people’s lives, including people who don’t have anything to do with generating the violence — we will be helping.”

Mitchell’s character, Brandon, is an aspiring chef, hoping one day to open his own restaurant with his girlfriend, played by Tiffany Boone.

MARY MITCHELL: Chicago’s mean streets get star treatment in ‘The Chi’

“The very day I got to Chicago to begin filming, I saw one of those interactive billboards outside a Walgreen,” said Mitchell. “It said that 46 people had been shot that very weekend. Violence is not a thing that stops. It’s not something you can get over that easily. I thought, ’46 families have been affected this weekend.’

“Yet, I also knew that for many people, they would hear that statistic and then get on with their lives, because they’re so used to hearing those kinds of statistics. But those 46 families won’t. Their lives had been changed forever.”

For Mitchell, one of the easier aspects of his Brandon character was the cooking part. “I’m from New Orleans, a city where food and cooking is a big deal — much like it is in Chicago. Down there, I actually was a cook,” and while the actor demurred about his ability to whip up a mean gumbo, he said with a laugh, “I did become a pretty good grillman. I’m great on the grill.”

Turning serious, he pointed out that his own life mirrored other aspects of his Brandon character. “While he wasn’t my own brother, I did lose a very best friend in New Orleans to street violence. So, when I read this script, it touched me. … I learned at a very early age that life is not all Skittles and quinoa! You have to face the tough stuff that’s going on around you. That was true for Lena growing up on the South and West Sides of Chicago — and that’s true for so many other Chicagoans too.”

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