Lena Waithe’s The Chi has received rave reviews for its heartfelt portrayal of life on the South Side of Chicago and the show’s cast is receiving tons of praise as well.
The show has also given us one of our favorite new television couples, Jerrika and Brandon, played by Tiffany Boone and Jason Mitchell.
ESSENCE spoke to Boone, who dished on the show’s portrayal of Black love and wearing her natural hair on the series. She also addressed our growing suspicion about Sarah (Kristina Emerson), the hostess who works at Brandon’s upscale restaurant.
ESSENCE: There’s so much going on in the series that I can’t wait to talk about. First, I want to touch on an interview where you talked about growing up without a dad after your father’s murder. How did that shape you as an actor?
Tiffany Boone: I was blessed to have a mother who was amazing. After that happened, I felt like she kind of kept me busy and kept me focused with the arts. I always talk about how acting is such an amazing healing tool for children and it certainly was for me. Having that outlet of acting, dancing, and singing allowed me an opportunity to get out a lot of emotions that you can’t verbalize when you’re a child.
I was able to lose myself in characters and not focus on the negatives in my life, even if I did feel sad I could let that out through a character. To this day it’s a refuge for me.
ESSENCE: And, artists like yourself, Lena Waithe, and Chance the Rapper are showing that cities like Chicago and Baltimore are much more than the reputations that precede them. You all are showing that there’s another side of these cities that we are not seeing. Having filmed in Chicago and grown up in Baltimore, what is it about these places that people misunderstand?
TB: What people don’t understand, and Lena has spoken on this before, is that even in the darkness of a situation there is so much light. People who are struggling in these situations, whatever circumstances they’re in, are full of so much joy. The laughter that I grew up with, the love I grew up around, it still sustains me to this day. Black people, in general, are so joyful and resilient.
And, I think, that’s why we have people like Lena and Chance and, from Baltimore, Jada Pinkett Smith. These people fight their way out of these situations. It gives us a strength that I’m not sure everybody has, we have this kind of fighter spirit. It’s like, I’m going to make something of myself and I’m going to pull up the people I know and shine a light on these situations. That’s what, I think, people don’t see. They don’t see that we’re not just sad, we’re not just hopeless, there’s a fighter spirit in us.
ESSENCE: So, what was it about the role of Jerrika that drew you to the character? I know you quit acting for a year because you were getting roles you weren’t into. What was it about this role that made you want it?
TB: I had auditioned for the original pilot of The Chi, which was about two or three years before we started on this project, and from the first time I read the script I was obsessed. It felt so relevant and authentic. Jerrika felt like me, felt like my girlfriend, felt like my cousin, felt like the Black women I know and I spend my time around. It was an opportunity that I hadn’t gotten yet. I’ve played a lot of younger characters. I’ve played serial killers, I’ve played wild characters, and she felt the most grounded and close to me.
I did not get the first pilot and fell into this thing where I was not happy in the industry. Nothing was speaking to me, nothing was inspiring me and I was exhausted. I took a break, but something told me, ”Okay, give this one more try.” That’s when The Chi came back around. It was my first audition back and it felt right to give it a try again because I connected with the role of Jerrika so much. I felt like I could tell the story of her well. It was meant to be. I got to take a breather and when I came back I felt rejuvenated and excited about working again. I brought that kind of joy and excitement the second time around.
ESSENCE: As someone with natural hair, I have to ask, is that your natural hair on the show? I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Black women rock their natural hair on television. I was excited to see Jerrika’s natural curls.
TB: That’s my hair and it was an important part of creating the character. When I auditioned I had gray Marley twists in my hair, so it’s been in different forms. I haven’t straightened my hair in over three years.
When we started working on the pilot we were gonna do a natural wig to protect my hair, but Rick [Famuyiwa], who directed the first episode, and Lena and I sat down and they were like, ‘We need your hair exactly how it is.’ Rick has daughters and Rick’s like, ”Look my daughters are natural and they say they look on T.V. and they don’t see themselves.” Obviously, after he said that about little Black girls not seeing themselves, I had to wear my natural hair.
It’s important. Like you said you do not see it around. We’re starting to see it more you know. Susan Kelechi Watson on This Is Us wears her hair natural and they switch it up. For Jerrika, it’s very every day girl gone natural, wake up and go about her business, and go to work. The regularity of it and the normalizing of that is so important for a little Black girl to see.
ESSENCE: Absolutely! And it’s not just your hair that Black viewers get to see. Brandon and Jerrika have a great relationship. We get to see more Black love on TV. Did you and Jason [Mitchell] audition together?
TB: Yeah. He had the role before any of us. He was already cast and then I came in and auditioned with him. From the moment we met it was like family. We got along very quickly and the chemistry was there for us as soon as we started acting together.
Jason’s a phenomenal actor. I think we understand each other really well in a way that I’ve never had with any other actor that I’ve worked with. We get in there and we just speak the same language. I think for both of us it was important that Brandon and Jerrika’s relationship be kind of like a center stone in the telling of this story, that you see Black love in all its complexity. You see how hard she rides for him. You see the way he looks at her. You see them trying to build this life together. It’s important that you see that it’s not all easy, but at the same time they have a lot of respect for each other and they’re trying to build this life together. I don’t think there’s enough of that.
They love each other. He looks at her like she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. She’s waking up with a scarf around her head and her little afro and she’s going to work in a pencil skirt and being sexy. That is so important to me, to be able to have that representation.
Again, my favorite couple on TV right now is Beth and Randall on This Is Us.
ESSENCE: Love them.
TB: Beth and Randall are so important, but you don’t get to see the beginnings of that relationship. You don’t get to see the young Black love as much. You know what I mean? Where they’re still trying to build their life. On This Is Us they’re already established, they’re married. With Brandon and Jerrika you see that. You see what they’re building. I think that’s important to see. Little kids can see Black people who are in love with each other and they’re treating each other nicely.
ESSENCE: So how do you see Jerrika and Brandon’s relationship evolving through the season? With the death of his brother and his mom who’s an alcoholic, hounding him, how is all that pressure going to affect them?
TB: With his mother, at this point, she’s an annoyance to Jerrika but she’s not gonna stop her from being with Brandon. She’s just kind of like, whatever, I have to deal with her.
This situation with his brother being murdered, I think it’s kind of set up in the second episode what he’s gonna do about it. Where he comes from you retaliate. And, where she comes from you don’t. Right now, it’s like, no one’s going to jail. You’re not messing up this life we’ve built. That’s the main conflict that you’re gonna see play out over the season, them coming from these different worlds and having very different points of view about how you handle the loss of someone.
I think what you see through the season is them fighting to be together through it all. There are a lot of ups and downs that are coming in the season, especially this third episode. You start to see a lot of cracks in their relationship. But, ’til the end, they are fighting for each other, which is something that I love. Neither one of them is giving up and washing their hands of the situation. They’re fighting for each other.
ESSENCE: Okay, before you go, my coworker and I were talking about the show and we were like, ‘If Brandon cheats on Jerrika with the hostess at his job, we’re gonna have problems.’ Do we need to be prepared? She doesn’t want these problems.
TB: [Laughs]I mean, I think everybody should keep an eye out. I think she has a motive and you might see how that plays into the relationship throughout the season. I think what happens kinda surprises you. It’s not what people are gonna imagine is gonna happen. So I don’t want to give anything away but yes she’s gonna be an issue but not in the way you think she’s gonna be an issue.
ESSENCE: Okay. Alright. [Laughs] We’re still gonna be on standby, though. We’re gonna be on standby and we’re gonna be ready.