Lena Waithe’s new Showtime drama The Chi follows a sprawling network of characters, but rotates mainly around the lives of Kevin, Emmett, Brandon and Ronnie, all black boys and men. Surrounding them are a pantheon of women — encouraging girlfriends, stern mothers, fragile mothers, ex-lovers, crushes and teasing older sisters.
Speaking to the New York Times in January, Waithe seemingly explained her decision to focus on the male characters. “My mission is to show these young black men are not born with a gun in their hand,” Waithe said. “These are kids who come out with all the promise and hope that any other kid does.”
Helping Waithe accomplish that mission are The Chi’s women cast members, whose performances balance out the main characters and bring life to this portrait of a city.
We recently talked with two of the female costars of The Chi about bringing their characters to life, representing Chicago and working with Lena Waithe. Yolonda Ross plays Jada, mother to Emmett, an impulsive teen who suddenly finds himself the primary caretaker of his infant son; Tiffany Boone plays Jerrika, Brandon’s girlfriend who lives in a chic hipster loft and has plans to open a restaurant.
Mic spoke to Ross and Boone in separate phone interviews Friday. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: What first drew you to the project, and how did you wind playing the characters you’re playing?
Yolanda Ross: What drew me to it was the writing. As an actor, when you’re auditioning for something, you read so many things in a year. ... When something comes along and the text makes sense and the character makes sense, and it feels easy coming out of your mouth and your body just clicks with it, that’s a huge sign as to, “Yeah, this feels really right and I want to go for this.” This [role] was that.
Tiffany Boone: I auditioned for the original pilot, which happened about two or three years ago. I got the script, read it, fell in love with it, really thought that Lena was doing something important with the script. Particularly with Jerrika, I was drawn to the character because it felt like me, it felt like my family, it felt [like] my friends, it felt like women that I knew [who] weren’t being represented on television at the time.
And so I auditioned for Lena ... and bombed, didn’t get it. And they filmed that pilot and they decided to redo it, they weren’t happy with the way the first pilot turned out. In the meantime, I kind of stopped acting. I started a small floral business. And so it just so happened that at the same time I decided, “OK, I’m gonna give this one more shot,” they decided to shoot another pilot. And I auditioned again and it just happened. Obviously it was meant to be this way.
When you got the role, were you already familiar with Chicago? What steps did you take to get to know the city?
YR: I had really only been in the airport in Chicago, I had never been there before. I came in a little early and ... I just was taken around by friends to some of the best food spots.
TB: I was actually already pretty familiar with Chicago. I used to spend the summers in Chicago while I was in college and I was absolutely in love with it. But I mostly stayed downtown, I didn’t really get to explore the way I did once we did the show. Once we started filming and I made such a large group of friends in Chicago ... We just ate all the food, went to all the museums, went to all the festivals, I went to block parties and day parties and got to know the people and the energy of the city.
People tend to use Chicago to make their case about gun control, or policing or violence. Did you feel a responsibility when it came to representing the city?
YR: Totally. I feel, with our show and with myself personally as an artist, being parts of projects that ... are portraying real life, that to me is what comes first. And within that and within the show is the opportunity to show that the city is more than just violence. The people [who] are there in these areas where a lot of violence is happening, they are not just the violence. They are people, they’re humans first, [who] are living day-to-day just like everybody else. Just like people in Manhattan, just like people in L.A. That’s what I want to portray.
TB: Absolutely, I felt a great deal of responsibility and still do today in talking about the show. ... It’s so important to me that we’re representing the show correctly because all a lot of people know about the city is what they read in these headlines. The murdering and the gun violence and the police brutality, all of that is true. Absolutely it’s a tough city, but what I felt the responsibility for is to show the other side of that, to show the light in this city, to show the pride that the people of this city have for Chicago. To show that these are smart, funny, hardworking people [who] are more than what you see on the news ... so that people can gain empathy for these people and not just see them as body counts.
Let’s talk about your characters. Who are they to you?
YR: Jada is real. To me, Jada is common-sense and hardworking, she’s loving, she’s caring and she’s any number of women [who] are single mothers out there. You’re taking on everything because there’s nobody else picking up the slack for you. She’s the one character I’ve played [who] I feel is closest to me because she just makes sense to me.
TB: [Jerrika] is in her late 20; she comes from this successful real estate family and she’s trying to build her own career as a real estate agent. ... She’s really dedicated to this relationship she has with Brandon.
For me, I just connected with Jerrika because she just felt like a regular young black woman I know, [who] I don’t feel like you see on television a lot. She’s educated and she’s funny and she’s playful and she’s sexy and she’s goofy, and she’s trying to build a life for herself. For me, it was a real opportunity to play myself and my friends in a way that I haven’t before.
A lot of female characters, in a lot of different types of media, are seen through their relationship to male characters. What do you do to bring your characters into their own and make them feel real?
YR: I can only flesh her out as much as I can in a scene, so it depends on what’s taking place there. It really does start with the writing, I need to have those things written. ... I can’t put more into it than is there.
TB: Specifically in the show, because Lena’s vision was to show it from the point of view of these four young black men, all of the women are so connected to the men and our stories are told through them. It is really important that we not just be add-ons, that we not just be wallpaper in the scene. So for me, it was completely developing her for myself — even if there’s elements in the show that you won’t even necessarily get to see, I have all of that in my head.
You’re on a show with a primarily black cast and a black creator. What does that mean to you?
YR: It does mean a lot, because it’s progress. It’s about time, in my feeling, that there are black faces behind these shows. It’s the specificity of characters and knowledge of what people do, those little things that we do, that just don’t get seen on TV that might be from a room of white writers writing something about us.
TB: This is my first time experiencing that and it means the world to me. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to have that experience ... especially right now, at this moment in time, politically, culturally. In TV and film, I think there’s this desire [for] and resurgence of black performers and creators that we haven’t seen in a long time. For me, it’s like, “Ah, I get to be a part of this cool moment in history!” We’re telling more in-depth and more complex black stories, like Atlanta, Insecure, Dear White People, even Beth and Randall in This Is Us. To be a part of this new kind of storytelling is amazing.
Lena Waithe is a rising star. What’s it like to work with her?
YR: Lena’s open. She’s open to hearing thoughts on your character, on where you want to go, on where you see things, if you have questions. ... She’s also inclusive because she’s also introduced us to some of the writers, which is a great team of people. She’s just very personable so it makes it easy to work with her.
TB: I knew Lena before all of this, she was a producer on Dear White People the movie, and my partner was in the movie. That’s when I first got to know her, so I’ve kind of seen her come to this point, which is always exciting.
Working on the show with Lena, what was really important to me was checking in with her and making sure that she felt taken care of. This is her baby, this is her first TV show, and it’s about where she’s from. The characters are named after people she grew up with. It would just be me being like, “How are you feeling? Is it feeling real?” That was my main priority in working with her, making sure that she felt comfortable. I know that’s a weird thing for an actor to be doing for a showrunner, but we need to make sure that we’re taking care of each other.
The Chi airs on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sundays.