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Lena Waithe and Common On How They Hope ‘The Chi’ Will Generate Empathy for Black Families — Turn It On Podcast

Newly renewed for a second season, Showtime's 'The Chi' came out of Waithe's desire to tell the honest story of African-American life in the Windy City.

Lena Waithe and Common'The Chi' TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 03 Jan 2018

Lena Waithe and Common


Lena Waithe’s desire for how “The Chi” is received is heartbreaking. Quite simply, she hopes the show helps audience better see African Americans as human beings.

“As simple as concept as it is, it’s still something that people struggle with,” she told IndieWire’s Turn It On podcast. ” Black people are not 3/5ths human and we’re not all hooligans. Black boys aren’t born with a gun in their right hand and drugs in their left. They’re born with as much promise and hope as anybody else. ‘The Chi’ represents the humanity in us and the full breadth of who we are as a people. I hope people take that away from the show.”

IndieWire TV critic Ben Travers sat down recently with Waithe and fellow executive producer Common to discuss the show and how it came about. They began by discussing what inspired Waithe to create the show. Listen below!

Waithe, who won an Emmy for writing an episode of “Master of None” with Aziz Ansari, is the executive producer and creator of “The Chi,” which premiered last month on Showtime and was just renewed for a second season. The series, which explores the a group of residents living in the South Side of Chicago, stars Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Alex Hibbert, Yolonda Ross, Armando Riesco, and Tiffany Boone. It ranks as Showtime’s best series premiere since “Billions” in 2016, averaging four million weekly viewers across multiple platforms. And the show continues to grow each week.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9335549m)Michael Epps, Alex Hibbert, Shamon Brown"The Chi" (Season 1) TV Series - 2018

Michael Epps, Alex Hibbert, Shamon Brown, “The Chi”


“I’m hoping this story will bring us closer together as human beings,” said Common, who serves as an executive producer and also appears on the show in a minor role. “One of the most powerful things that Lena’s been able to do, now people are getting in proximity of black life through storytelling. They can examine and be around it and feel close to our lives. Now you get to understand it and respect it and know some of the lingo, see our children laughing.”

Waithe was inspired to write “The Chi” after she saw the headlines of violence coming out of Chicago. “Even though I live in LA my family’s still in Chicago, I feel connected to Chicago. I was bothered by the stories coming out of the city. I was reading a lot of [James] Baldwin at the time, Langston Hughes, as I tend to do just to look for inspiration. I realized, I’ve got to tell our story. Otherwise I don’t think it will be told in an honest way.”


Waithe, who appears in “Master of None,” decided not to get in front of the camera for “The Chi,” opting to keep her writing and acting mostly separate. “That’s not my lane, I like to write things and let other people interpret them,” she said.

But Waithe is proud of the show’s writers room, which was made up of “phenomenal African-American writers with unique stories. No one can tell our story like we can. That was important, I wanted to make sure the stories were authentic and honest.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover UsageMandatory Credit: Photo by Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (9335549l) Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Common "The Chi" (Season 1) TV Series - 2018

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Common, “The Chi”


As for the series title, Waithe originally planned to call the show “Chi-raq,” but others weren’t so keen on the title. Ultimately, Spike Lee used that title first — freeing Waithe up to go with “The Chi,” which Common suggested. “I really responded to that,” she said. “The show is so much more than just the violence that affects the city. It’s about the people of the city. The show we ended up making lent itself to the title.”

“The Chi” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

Also in this episode of TURN IT ON, we talk the changing world of TV language with The Magicians executive producer Sera Gamble.

IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.

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