Love. Sadness. Pride. Hope. Fear.
These are just some of the emotions that are missing in the statistics and headlines about the gun violence and deaths crippling Chicago. It’s a narrative Lena Waithe and Common hope to change with their new Showtime drama The Chi, which premieres Sunday.
Waithe (Master of None), the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing, created and co-writes the series and Common is an executive producer. Both are Chicago natives.
“Black lives need to be valued now more than ever and we need to tell these stories,” Common told ESSENCE at a recent premiere party for The Chi in Los Angeles. “We need to understand that Black people are human beings who love, cry and get angry and love their families and love God. We get scared to talk to girls at times. To be able to tell a story that is very specific to Chicago and the universal struggle of Black life is important to me.
“I’ve spent my whole career trying to be that in music,” Common added. “So to come across a writer like Lena and to be able to produce on a show like this and help that vision come out to the world, is a different way of telling stories and it’s beautiful. I feel blessed to be a part of it.”
The Chi follows four working-class families on the South Side of Chicago and the highs and lows in their lives as crime constantly threatens to destroy their worlds. Alex Hibbert (Moonlight) masterfully steals every scene he’s in as lovelorn preteen who has seen too much.
“This is my first television series but everyone has been great, helping me with my scenes and giving me advice,” Hibbert, 13, said. The young actor even sings wonderfully in the pilot episode but says he’ll probably steer clear of musicals. “It’s just another talent to fall back on. I’m an actor.”
Costar Jason Mitchell (Mudbound and Straight Outta Compton) is equally spellbinding as a chef conflicted by personal and professional aspirations. Jacob Latimore (Collateral Beauty and Detroit), Yolanda Ross (Whitney and How To Get Away with Murder), Sonja Sohn (The Wire) and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Treme) round out the cast with strong performances. Fans can look for Common to guest star on The Chi beginning in episode four.
“My character is a Muslim brother,” Common said of his turn as Rafiq, who has a meaty storyline in the eighth episode. “In this monologue I had, I kind of wrote in some things that happened with one of my friends who ended up going to prison for murder.”
Waithe, in contrast, said The Chi is not autobiographical for her. She penned the first episode, which Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) directed, and co-wrote the second.
“This is about Black people,” Waithe said. “I’m just telling stories about what’s going on right now.”
David Nevins, the president and CEO of Showtime, said Waithe’s voice is what drew him to The Chi and made him want the program on his network. Showtime’s other series about Chicago, Shameless, focuses on the city’s much whiter side of town.
“There is a really original take on these characters in the South Side of Chicago that is not generally depicted,” Nevins said. “There’s an optimism to it and the show balances life and death really well. I like the fact that it’s unexpected and you find yourself rooting for everybody.”
Critics have showered the show with praise and it has been ranked 84 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But many of those same critics have also compared The Chi to a beloved urban drama that preceded it —The Wire. It’s a comparison that makes Waithe roll her eyes.
“The two shows aren’t alike to me,” she said. “Just because it’s a bunch of Black people, doesn’t mean it’s like The Wire.”
But Common, who also adamantly argues that The Chi isn’t derivative, said he can see why some folks might think the two dramas are alike.
“People will use that comparison because it’s a story about Black lives told in a similar way,” Common said. “But Chicago is unique and very Midwestern. There are a lot of influences from the South. We’re a city discovered by a Black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. We’ve been home to President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan – you know?
“Plenty of people are from Chicago. Me and Lena and Kanye and Chance and Lorenz Tate,” he said. “We’ve brought a lot of people up. Chicago has a uniqueness and there’s a levity to our show that I don’t feel The Wire had. And Lena is telling it from a unique place – she’s a Black woman writing with a dope vision and The Chi has its own voice.”
The Chi airs on Sundays at 10 PM ET/PT on Showtime.