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Actor and Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe builds a legacy with The Chi

Lena Waithe near her childhood home in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2017. Waite, an actress and Emmy-winning writer, aims to paint her city in all its complexities and nuances.

WHITTEN SABBATINI/NYT

Lena Waithe is not shy about her natural talent. She knew it from a young age, too.

"I was always complimented about my writing, so very early on that was an area that I not only liked, but had a lot of confidence in," the writer, producer and performer says during a recent visit to Toronto. "Then, as I got older and knew I wanted to be a television writer, it was just a journey of trying to figure out what my voice was."

Now, that voice has become one of television's most exciting and compelling. At just 33, Waithe is leading a new wave of young black actors, writers, directors and producers in interrogating, and changing, the way Hollywood tells its stories. Alongside Insecure's Issa Rae, Atlanta's Donald Glover and Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, Waithe is challenging the industry's systemic flaws by producing evocative works that anchor artistry and narrative in the nuances of underrepresented perspectives.

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As a television writer with an already impressive career (Hello Cupid, Bones, producing the 2014 film Dear White People), Waithe got her breakout acting role in 2015 playing Denise on the award-winning Netflix series Master of None. Written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the show garnered widespread acclaim for setting the reality of first-generation experiences against a ubiquitous millennial tone, and featured a diverse cast. Last November, Waithe made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for writing on a comedy series, thanks to her work on the Season 2 Master of None episode "Thanksgiving," a "thinly veiled version" of her own coming-out story. "I love when people come up to me and say, I'm not queer, I'm not brown, I'm not female but I see myself in that episode," she says. "I'm writing my story so that others might see fragments of themselves."

The spotlight on Waithe is long overdue. With an unbridled dynamism, oftentimes jumping between the role of actor, writer, showrunner, producer and director, Waithe is a multihyphenate who can balance creativity with sheer tenacity. It's an acquired skill that Waithe attributes directly to her environment while growing up. "It comes from me being from Chicago and being raised in a family of women," she explains. "[I had] to be able to roll with the punches and deal with different personalities depending on the day. I ear-hustled them a lot and listened to how [my family] would express themselves, soaking it all up. Not thinking about how it would affect me later on in my life, but because I was always fascinated by them and all the characters that made up my neighbourhood."

Waithe's approach to the creative process – in which she translates her observations of her surroundings into precise, communal portraits – strongly informed her latest project: producing Showtime's The Chi (available in Canada on CraveTV). The cinematically stunning series – which she worked on alongside Chicago rapper Common – follows the convergent experiences of an array of characters in Chicago's South Side. Channelling the wide-net narrative spirit of The Wire and similar metropolitan-focused series such as Shameless and Atlanta, The Chi's more ordinary moments occur against a backdrop of gun violence that doesn't pacify the reality of life in Chicago, instead examining it under real-world circumstances. With meticulous precision, Waithe's work amplifies the resiliency of her characters and, most importantly, celebrates the joy of the series' nearly all-black cast.

"With The Chi, it's me observing my own city and also pulling some things from themes I've dealt with in my life," Waithe says. "Not always being super autobiographical is reminiscent of what [James] Baldwin or [Langston] Hughes would do in terms of writing about the black experience from a different perspective than their own.

"That's what got me trying to tell the story of The Chi and wanting to step into my masculine brother's shoes and show how they grieve, how they love, how they deal with loss, how they define what it means to be a father – what it means to be a man."

In addition to opening the doors to fresh ways of tackling representation on screen, Waithe's personal politics are closely tied to her work. Earlier this month, she proudly wore black at the Golden Globe Awards in support of the #TimesUp initiative, which provides legal aid to victims of sexual violence. When she can, she mentors young writers of colour who, she hopes, will have a bigger career than her. "I want them to be free to do their art," she says. "It is a bit of a renaissance, but the playing field is nowhere near levelled and I still think there's more work to be done."

With a role in Steven Spielberg's coming sci-fi epic Ready Player One keeping her busy, in addition to handling production for the forthcoming dance comedy Step Sisters, 2018 promises to be a big year for Waithe – who already knows what she wants to get out of her career.

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"I would like people to say that she introduced new voices to the industry, that then would leave a huge imprint on the town and on the world," she says. "I hope that people will say that, 'She told the truth, she told her truth, she wasn't afraid to live her truth, and she wasn't afraid to live her truth out loud.' That's what I want my legacy to look like."

The Chi is available for streaming on CraveTV.

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