For actress Yolonda Ross, her character’s diagnosis with breast cancer on this season’s “The Chi,” began a real-life journey to support Black women dealing with the devastating disease.
That journey will culminate with Ross unveiling a photo exhibit of Black women impacted by breast cancer, on Oct. 30, in Bridgeport. She’ll also announce a donation of $100,000 to three local breast cancer groups at the event marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Black women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate, despite improvements in early detection and treatment for breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One recent study finds Black women still twice as likely to die of it than any other group.
“Once I was told about where ‘Jada’ was going this season, I wanted to meet with women who had gone through it to get a complete understanding of how the body changes,” said Ross.
“It’s when I was introduced to the Tatisa C. Joiner Foundation on Chicago’s South Side, where I met ‘The Butterflies.’ It’s the name that they call themselves, because they go through such a metamorphosis. They were so open and giving with their personal stories.”
Ross plays single mother “Jada” on Showtime’s hit series by trailblazing showrunner and Chicago native Lena Waithe — recently renewed for its fifth season.
Her character’s breast cancer journey led to a poignant episode where Ross, whose deep dive into the role forced her to confront her own stuffed grief over losing two loved ones to the disease — her aunt and a best friend — decided to shave her head onscreen, for real.
The episode garnered huge buzz and rave reviews across sectors — including from breast cancer survivors nationwide and others who had walked the journey with family and friends.
And one of those fans was Rhonda Feinberg of The Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation.
The matriarch of the Chicago-based foundation called Ross personally to share how the realistic portrayal had moved her and brought back memories.
In subsequent conversations about the organizations Ross had come across, Feinberg asked how she could help. That led to the donations, going to the Tatisa C. Joiner Foundation, Equal Hope and The Center for Health Equity Transformation.
“As a breast cancer survivor, I understand first-hand the challenges. Yolonda’s performance on ‘The Chi’ tells the story powerfully and movingly but also shows how women of color very often have enormous obstacles accessing vital treatment,” Feinberg said.
“I’m so proud to team with Yolonda not only to shine a light on the wonderful organizations helping with this cause, but also to support them with critical funding for the tremendous work they do.”
It was the education Ross received while researching for the role that sparked her transition into advocacy. In 2014, breast cancer had claimed the life of her best friend, Ruth Starns, at age 39, in London; in 2016, the life of her aunt, Billie Dixon, in Texas, then in her 60s.
Ross would later go back to photograph several of the Butterflies — the huge portraits she created being unveiled at the event that is free and open to the public being held at the Hilton Asmus Contemporary Gallery, 3622 S. Morgan.
“When I visited Tatisa, there were probably eight women in the room, and then 30 or 40 more on Zoom. It was powerful,” Ross recounted.
“And it was the first time I actually spoke about losing my friend to breast cancer. It was something that I’ve never really talked about, because it was an experience where my friend was terminal, and I didn’t know what to say. You don’t know where to put your emotions. You are just are there for them,” she recalled.
“And one of the women played a video celebrating someone that they had lost. The song she played with it, I used in my haircutting scene. It was like they were with me in that moment.”
Shaving her head — an idea brought to her by the show’s hair designer, Denise Baker, who lost two siblings to breast cancer — was emotional. Ross had a gorgeous head of hair.
“I didn’t hesitate when she called out of the blue and suggested it. I just said, ‘Yes,’ she said.
“The day before, I was nervous, excited at the same time. I cried afterward,” she shared.
“But I wanted to make sure, while bringing Jada’s cancer journey to life onscreen, that we never devalued Black women’s emotions or emotional journeys. I wanted this portrayal of a Black single woman going through cancer to be honest and insightful. I believe we accomplished that.”