Lena Waithe: ‘Your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t’
The actor/producer and Emmy-winning writer is in love, in ‘Ready Player One’ and in the business of kicking down doors
Before my conversation with Lena Waithe begins, I issue a warning. She is, after all, the creator of Showtime’s excellent The Chi, a fictional series about Chicago’s South Side.
“Nothing better ever happen to Papa! I mean it, Lena!”
Waithe laughs mightily at my plea to keep the innocent and charismatic Papa free of harm. Charmingly portrayed by Shamon Brown Jr., he’s one of the three preteen black boys through which we see the neighborhood.
“Look, man,” the Emmy winner says with a giggle, “no one stays safe in The Chi. Even the children.”
What Waithe has done is create characters so tangible they feel like family. She gives an episodic answer to the “What about Chicago?” crowd. In The Chi, Waithe gives us family that you want to protect, support, and keep safe and sound. Her series takes much of what we loved about HBO’s groundbreaking The Wire and shifts focus to spotlight the very real people behind the very real headlines that we see — or don’t see enough. The Chi just ended its inaugural season’s run, but it’ll be back for a second season soon. But Waithe? She’s just beginning. Like for real, for real.
Lena Waithe turns 34 soon. She’s been working steadily in Hollywood since graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College in 2006, and she’s worked for some of the most prominent black female directors in the business — Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood have both been bosses — and in 2011, the S— Black Girls Say video series went viral. The much-debated sensation was written by Waithe.
And by 2018? On the eve of the Oscars, Waithe was feted by Essence at its Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, where she was honored by Angela Bassett, Justin Simien and Steven Spielberg. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “I tend to be really rounded … and I think that’s because I’ve paid a lot of dues. I genuinely love this business, this industry. I love what I do. And also, my lady, my fiancée, keeps me really grounded.”
So much of Waithe’s story stems from her own personal life — on her willingness to live out loud and stand in her own truth as a black lesbian. Last year, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for her work on Master of None; the “Thanksgiving” episode of that series mirrored her own experience coming out to her mom.
And despite her rocketing fame — she was featured, solo, on the cover of Vanity Fair last week — she’s unbothered. “It’s commerce, it’s exchange,” she said. “It’s like you’re hot right now, someone else will be hot next year. What happens to some people — we’ve seen it, when they get all caught up — they start to think, ‘Oh, ain’t I grand?’ There are a lot of us who are talented and gifted and great … and I see this with Donald [Glover] too, where at the end of the day we’re like, ‘Look, man. We’re pretty good at what we do, but there’s always folks coming up after us.’ There’s always [people] nipping after you. People should never get comfortable … you just have to always be a student, you have to always be humble, and you’ve got to always know that the business loves a new, shiny toy.”
But Waithe is not just talent. She’s a creator, someone who is passionate about representation and progression. And she has heavy hitters in her corner, like Spielberg, the legendary director who hired her for her most recent role, as Aech/Helen in Ready Player One.
“I don’t know if he’s ever stood back to think about, ‘Oh, how are people receiving me?’ Or, ‘Where’s my legacy?’ He’s like, I just want to make things that I’m passionate about, and I think that’s my mission,” she said of Spielberg. And of herself she says, “I figure that as long as I do that, I’ll be on the right track. I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand. But my hope is that folks will just rock with me and go on this journey with me.”
Much of her journey is about inclusion. In this season of The Chi, the series introduces us to one of the families on the South Side that is made up of two mothers, a teen daughter and a preteen son. It was subtle, and it quietly helped normalize a nuclear family that’s headed up by two lesbians in love; it wasn’t that episode’s central focus. It just was. And that’s important to Waithe.
“It’s the thing that’s on my heart,” she said. “Everybody has a cause, a thing that is … a thorn in their side, and that’s one for me.” Then she gets into the complex subject of being black and gay and out and verbal about it all — in Hollywood. “I’m so confused by it,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, because I can somewhat understand why some people want to keep their sexual orientation private — typically African-American people who are in the public eye. I guess to some extent, but I think that our children are literally killing themselves. Our queer children are thinking that they’re less than. Are thinking that they’ll never be loved. Are thinking that they’ll never have a normal, happy life. … No. Their lives are priceless.”
Waithe said something very similar and poignant to that room at the Essence luncheon earlier this month. It pierced the crowd and resounded loudly to a group of mostly black women, who were already emotionally laid out by the electrifying speech on beauty and acceptance that Black Panther’s Danai Gurira, who also was honored, had delivered earlier that day.
“The reason why people are closeted,” she continued, “is because they’re afraid, particularly in Hollywood. They’re afraid of losing a fan base. They’re afraid of losing people — lost endorsement deals and roles, things like that. [But] if they walk away from you once they figure out who you really are, like, why are we even dealing with that?”
Waithe wants everyone to experience the authenticity she’s living right now. You can’t create a moment like the Thanksgiving coming-out episode inside of a black family unit, she says, without a willingness to be vulnerable.
“I think your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t. You can’t be as happy,” she said. “If I was in the closet, I would not be a happy camper. I just wouldn’t be. I’m a real b—-. I’m a truth-teller. I can’t sit here and act like I don’t have a phenomenal woman at home, with an engagement ring on her finger that I bought as a token of my love.”
There’s of course a long history of gay people in Hollywood performing heterosexuality. Waithe takes a moment to remind. “[People] literally have partners and wives and husbands, and like — because of what? They want to protect the facade. It’s like you’re preventing your art from being as great as it can be, and that’s because you’re not being completely honest with the public. And I think it’s bulls—. If James Baldwin can be out and proud and effeminate … in Harlem and in Paris and walking around and all that kind of stuff, so can we.”
Waithe can’t say enough about this idea of unveiling and revealing. Because she doesn’t want to be out here alone. She doesn’t want to be the only revolutionary out here with a megaphone. It’s lonely.
“I see these cats all the time, out and about, they hug me and say, ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re out! You’re doing it!’ And I want to look at them and go, ‘Why aren’t you?’ Why do I have to be out here on the diving board by myself?’ ”
And now we have Lena Waithe the actor.
It’s not a space that she had designs on. But she’s being asked to come in and read for parts, as with Ready Player One, and being cast in shows like NBC’s emotionally gripping This Is Us. Casting directors are calling her people and asking for her as front-facing talent. She has, in fact, a seat at the table. All of the tables.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, a television writer. When you have a presence in front of the camera, the business treats you differently. You get a little bit more of a red carpet rollout. If you send somebody an email, they respond right away. It’s just that weird caste that we have in this town.”
But she’s using her newfound power for good. And her mission is clear: help writers of color. She’s making sure a diverse group of writers has access to writing classes, and she’s all about making connections.
“People look at me and Donald and Issa [Rae] and Justin and Barry [Jenkins] and … I’m like, there’s so many phenomenal writers of color that are just dope. And not just black, but Native American, Latino and members of the queer community. People who live with disabilities. From the trans community. People who are nonbinary,” she said. “We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring that are interesting. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Waithe is already thinking ahead to the next season of The Chi. Common executive produces, and Ayanna Floyd Davis has signed on for season two as executive producer and showrunner. The show will go back into production later this year.
“We’re going to really step it up. It’s going to be blacker. The women are going to have a lot more to do. And I just have a lot more power this go-around,” Waithe said. “It’s only going to get better. For Atlanta season two, I feel like it’s a little more lived in, and Donald’s a little more confident in what he’s doing, and he’s taking a few more risks, which is really cool. And I want our season two to kind of feel like what season two of Atlanta feels like. Just a little more seasoned.”
And she has more on the way: a pilot order for TBS with Simien, with whom she last teamed up for Dear White People. “I get to be back in the saddle again,” Waithe said, “and to tell a story about a queer black girl and her two straight best friends. And them navigating life in Los Angeles, and what that looks like.”
Because telling stories, stories that don’t often get told, is what Waithe does best.
So long as Papa survives. Please?