‘The Chi’ actress Birgundi Baker steps up in prominent role as a missing Black woman
While the show’s police storylines were eliminated, the actress was promoted to a series regular as Kiesha, representing a historically ignored demographic.
Two episodes into the third season, fans are witnessing multiple changes in the cast and storylines of “The Chi,” the hit Showtime series that airs Sundays.
Actress Birgundi Baker, the main beneficiary of the show’s comings and goings, is using her platform to amplify the voices of those often ignored: Black women.
The police storylines of the first and second seasons were eliminated, she says, so she could shine in a prominent role as Kiesha Williams, who was set to leave home for college but vanished while waiting for a bus.
Baker said her transition into the show’s lead role has been “a blessing. I don’t know how many times as an artist you get to work on something [that] lines up so perfectly with what’s happening in real life, so it feels great. I feel like I can finally use my art and use my voice for something bigger than just entertainment; it’s like education and advocacy.
“We had a cop [Armando Riesco] as a series regular, and [season three showrunner Justin Hillian] said that we were no longer going to have that cop. . . . That means we should bring on a problem that cops don’t care about, so we can ride this story fully out. They said they thought, ‘What’s something that cops really don’t care about?’ because we’re getting rid of the cops. . . . And he said missing Black girls. My storyline sparked from no cops.”
Friends and family are left to search for Baker’s character because they are aware missing and/or murdered Black women and girls often are ignored by mainstream media and the police and don’t receive the same level of attention as missing women from other demographics.
The most ardent critiques of this practice — a key storyline in season three of “The Chi” — point to the circumstances surrounding of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a first responder in Louisville, Kentucky, killed by police who executed a no-knock warrant, and Black Lives Matter protester Oluwatoyin Salau, who was reported missing for nine days until she was found dead, along with the staggering number of missing Black women and girls from Chicago’s South and West sides.
In some cases, community members took it upon themselves to administer justice. For instance, Milwaukee citizens burned down a house and a van that they suspected of being a base for sex trafficking. The events came after concerned citizens criticized local law enforcement amid the disappearance of two Black girls from their neighborhood.
Baker, a Howard University graduate who has played roles on multiple Chicago-based shows (“Empire,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med”), says that the conversation regarding the lack of effort to highlight missing Black girls is overdue and that she’s well-aware of her role — on and off the camera — with regard to pushing the conversation forward.
“We should be talking about this, but also right now, it’s a great time to focus on it because Black people and Black women feel so ignored and uncovered,” Baker said. “So I think this is actually right on time.”
Baker, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, who was hailed by Refinery29 as one of the “Top Actresses To Look Out For in 2018,” came to Chicago and joined The Launch Model & Talent Showcase, an organization that places talent with agents in top regional markets.
“I get these messages from these young girls that are like, ‘Hey, I’m from Chicago, I’m 18 and I just want to say I love the way you’re doing Kiesha,’ ” Baker said. “I just want to be a vessel, and I think that’s the most important thing. The interviews are very exciting, the photo shoots are very exciting, but to be able to tell this story is truly, truly, truly an honor. I never imagined that it would happen this way.
“I never imagined I’ll come on as a series regular after three seasons, but it is truly an honor.”
And what should fans expect from Kiesha while watching season three?
“Expect the unexpected because not only does she go missing, but we have to deal with what comes with that, who she is,” Baker said. “After she goes through all of that, expect a totally different Kiesha. I feel like people love Kiesha because she was familiar . . . a cute and sisterly, around-the-way girl. But this season, she really becomes an adult. She becomes her own person. She changes.”