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Lena Waithe talks about The Chi's lyrical and wild characters
Middle school pals Kevin (Moonlight star Alex Hibbert), Papa (Shamon Brown, Jr.) and Jake (Michael Epps) are thick as thieves, hilarious and incredibly foul-mouthed. Their rough and tumble banter with each other -- Kevin calls Papa a "fat ass" and Papa rides Kevin for having no luck with girls, calling him a wanna be "Denzel mother----er" -- is delightfully mischievous. They talk like grown men, which might create a kind of fissure in some viewers' minds: Do little kids talk like this? And what's it like getting tweens to curse like soldiers?
"The kids they loved it," Waithe told TV Guide, who said their F-bombs and graphic sex talk reflects real life. Like the boys, she heard more than she probably should've at a young age too. "If you go on a bus or or a train in Chicago, or I'm sure New York, kids are talking like little adults." Hibbert, in the seventh grade last year when Moonlight made him a movie star, said he knows he's doing a job -- which means there's a hard line between work and home life. He told TV Guide that his mom has told him, "'You're working - do what you have to do.' But at the end of the day, I know when I'm in her house I won't be doing none of that grown stuff."
Papa, from a religious household, plays tough but knows he's not and gets teased for it; Jake wears dreadlocks, because as Waithe said, "That's what he thinks it takes to be a man." His dreads, like their coarse talk, is an appropriation of what manhood looks and sounds like although the reality, of course, is that they're still very much children. Nonetheless, they're exposed to adult situations all the time -- most alarmingly when Kevin witnesses Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) murder a kid which in turn makes Kevin Ronnie's No. 1 enemy. One of the enjoyable tensions of the first few episodes was seeing Kevin juggle an impossible duality: pining for the affections of a classmate, Andrea (Mariah Gordon) while literally running for his life from an out of control man who could very well kill him. As dangerous as their lives are though, the boys still party and chase girls in their complex and contradictory world. "Black parents can't afford to be helicopter parents," said Waithe. "That does change him. He has to become someone in order to protect himself rather than going to an adult. All that speaks to kids in Chicago -- which way they can go."
Kevin begins the series working hard to make Andrea (Mariah Gordon) his boo, but the pursuit requires patience; Andrea plays hard to get. Meantime, Kevin has another schoolmate trying to woo him, albeit in not the most tender way. Maisha (Genesis Denise Hale), a girl nearly twice Kevin's size who packs a mean punch, terrorizes Kevin to show her affection. "Bullying" usually conjures up images of boys roughhousing in a locker room or girls taunting another, but a girl tossing a boy around like a rag doll isn't often seen. "She was born out of the girl I was," Waithe said. "I was not a girly girl at all. I was rough around the edges, with my hair not always right." Maisha brings levity and might elicit laughs with her scenes, but serious issues bubble underneath. She's an example of a girl who doesn't fit in, and seeks attention the only way she knows how. Said Waithe: "It's not always easy for her to make friends or say how she feels or find ways to express herself."
Ronnie, played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, seems tormented from the start: drinking during the day, loafing around the neighborhood, wasting his days away. His malaise has roots though: The Chi gradually hints and then finally reveals this season that Ronnie is a veteran, and dealing with PTSD from serving in Afghanistan. "There's a self-medication or self-preservation he's trying to go through and it never quite works," Mwine told TV Guide. Ronnie's son's murder kicks off the series, leading him to hunt down the presumed killer -- in part in a need for justice but also in a misguided attempt to earn stature with his ex. Of course, hunting down the boy he erroneously believes is the killer, Coogie (Jahking Guillory), turns out to be a fatal mistake. Fired up on misinformation, rage and booze, he shoots Coogie in a tussle. Now he has a witness, Kevin, and a furious family member of the deceased, Brandon (Jason Mitchell ) to contend with, as well as the looming threat of law enforcement creating even more paranoia and delusion. "We see him go down the rabbit hole pretty deep and try to dig himself out."
Coogie's brother Brandon, wonderfully played by Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton) is one of The Chi's most aspirational figures. He has a promising career as a chef in a high-end restaurant but outside of work, dark forces tug at him. His already self-destructive mother Laverne (Sonja Sohn) descends further after her son Coogie's death, adding anxiety on top of Brandon's grief. And when Brandon learns that Kevin knows who killed his brother, guns and bloodshed show up again in his life. That jeopardizes the career that gives him any joy and hope of escaping his circumstances, as well as his relationship with Jerrika his (frankly too-good-for-him) girlfriend. "Growing up in that environment," said Mitchell, himself a New Orleans native who got into acting to escape violence, "you become the cool kid for shooting someone." Guns and death await Brandon around nearly every turn yet, "there's a certain respect that Brandon tries to carry himself with. Despite his financial situation or where he came up he tries to carry himself with a sort of pride." Brandon's values -- his pride, as well as the determination to stay focused on work while still grieving his brother -- become essential when he's thrust into the role of protecting Kevin.
Tiffany Boone, who plays Jerrika, feels a sense kinship to Jerrika's experience; Boone grew up in Baltimore and knows well the circumstances depicted in The Chi well. But Jerrika is stylish, smart and successful, with a promising real estate career. She also helps depict a side of Chicago's Southside that's thriving. Jerrika is from Hyde Park, a leafy section of the city that's home to museums and the Obamas' former home. Jerrika anchors Brandon in a way nobody else in his life seems to, demanding he stay away from street life. That's not easy. "She's an educated working girl trying to connect with a guy who's from such a different background," said Boone. She's a deliberately positive image among blight; Boone said that Lena Waithe and producers even asked her to wear her hair in a natural Afro style for that reason. "All the women on this show are so different," Boone said, adding that while Jerrika has had opportunities, some of the others are "fighting for their lives."
Jada (Yolonda Ross), a health care aide, makes a lasting introduction in the first episode. Wearing scrubs that suggest she's probably already pretty tired, she comes home to find her son Emmett (Jacob Latimore) "entertaining" a teenage girl -- Kevin's sister Keisha (Birgundi Baker). Jada's reaction reveals so much about her relationship with her son: they're kinda like friends, sort of like siblings. Jada, raising Emmett alone, demands discipline and accountability from her son though, even if Emmett doesn't always comply. He's particularly bad at not having babies, and when he learns he's a new father, again, Jada forces him to deal with it on his own. Encoded within their relationship is a meditation on black family disruption -- a real face on the disproportionate number of black children under 18 (as many as one-third according to Census data) living with only a Mom. That Jada takes care of people at work, and is expected to care for a man-child at home, is not lost on Ross. "We're taking care of everybody," said Ross said of single moms. "It's not like we want to be. The self time, the 'Me' time is a lot of times not there; we're looked at as a thing, a job, or not looked at at all." As the season progresses, she too gets snared in Ronnie's crime in ways she couldn't have predicted, but she does get to assert her personhood. She learns to reclaim her time.
Emmett (Jacob Latimore) unwittingly becomes mired in Ronnie's mess through a pair of sneakers. Chicago is, of course, where Michael Jordan soared, and helped create a sneaker subculture. Emmett chases kicks like he chases tail, selling footwear to people he knows (including Brandon) and unbeknownst to him, gets a pair from the late Coogie for resale. Consequences of that are still unfurling but in the meantime, his main challenge is caring for a new kid he's ill-equipped to care for after his baby's mother drops the newborn in his lap for good. Lena Waithe said she wanted The Chi to humanize black people, but especially black men, and her team paint Emmett compassionately in spite of his flaws and loathsome choices. He's a boy trapped in man's body. His son, which Jada refuses to help him raise, forces Emmett to make definitive decisions about what to do on his own. Which way does he go? "He's fighting emotions that can be overwhelming for a young man," Latimore said. As Jada mom learns to assert herself, her nudges to leave the nest get firmer. "Emmett starts to understand that his mom is not always going to have his back."
When Brandon's safety becomes in peril, he seeks help from Meldrick (Byron Bowers), who gives The Chi an element of the fantastical and supernatural. He's a flamboyant, New Age gangster who claims to have ESP, cares about animals and prefers organic food. He's also got the ability to get Brandon a gun -- which will of course come with costs beyond the financial. Meldrick, Waithe said, came as a result of Showtime's suggestion to have a character "shake things up a bit," but she wanted a mercenary with texture instead of a rote drug dealer/bad boy. She borrowed from her own upbringing, recalling the go-to people she saw in her own neighborhood. In nabes like hers, where residents are cut off from resources elsewhere, "we're our own detectives, we're our own pharmacy," she said. Growing up, she rarely went to hospitals and never saw a police officer there to help. "I saw Ms. Watkins or Mr. Jenkins. My grandmother was the head of the neighborhood watch. It was very much like, 'We can police ourselves.' That's something I still take with me."
The authority figure charged with solving Coogie's death, Ronnie's involvement and keeping peace in the hood is Detective Cruz, (Armando Riesco ) a tender Puerto Rican guy who appears to be white. That last part is an important distinction for Riesco, because it hits home for the him. "He's not African-American but being like me, Puerto Rican, you know what that feels like to be treated like a second class citizen." Cruz is sensitive, which makes him easy prey for a bully in his department, and why he violated department procedure to allow Ronnie to get a look at his murdered son's body. It's hinted that Cruz and Ronnie have a lengthy, tumultuous history -- one that's cut Ronnie some breaks in hopes he can redeem himself -- but as Cruz puts together pieces of Coogie's death while facing pressure and perhaps blackmail at work, he might have to get more savage. Obviously, detectives aren't beloved in the community to begin with; might Cruz be a wolf in sheep's clothing? Riesco says that he's what he seems. "He's got good intentions. He wears his heart on his sleeve." It could backfire. All the related violence in the first season gets "sorted out" by the end of the season, Riesco hinted, but, like everyone else, the things he discovers drag him deeper into a morass. "The forest gets thicker by the end."