Actress & producer Lena Waithe and rapper Common are known around the country for the projects they’ve worked on, awards they’ve won and people they’ve collaborated with. But, their defining and unifying characteristic is being from Chicago. Waithe and Common both grew up on the South Side of Chicago and teamed up to executive produce a new Showtime original series called “The Chi.” The show was shot on location in Chicago and features a story of how a group of residents become connected by one coincidence.
Waithe and Common talked with CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith about their childhoods in Chicago, how the show came together and why the elements of the series are so personal to both of them.
DJ Sixsmith: Both of you are from the South Side of Chicago and the themes of this show are really personal to each of you. How would describe your lives growing up in Chicago?
Lena Waithe: I thought it was beautiful. I grew up in a small little neighborhood in the South Side of 79th Street right off the Dan Ryan. It was a little pocket like community. It felt very much like a family. I grew up in the same house my Mom did and all the kids I played with were the children of the people she grew up with. It was a very safe and beautiful environment. I know that’s not what people think of when they think of Chicago or the South Side of Chicago. That was my experience and it was very much a community. Everybody knew everybody and I went to really cool schools. I had a wonderful experience there.
Common: There’s a lot of love in Chicago. There is a lot of soul and a lot of everyday working class people who have that high spirit. For me, I grew up with a mother who was a teacher. I got to see different pockets of life. I grew up in a neighborhood that was black middle class and there were poor people, people who were excelling in life and in an academic way. It helped shape who I am. I’m really grateful that I grew up in Chicago. As a black person and a black man, I really got to know who I am by being from Chicago. I always feel indebted and give love and opportunities to people who are from my city.
DS: Lena, you’ve been working on this script since 2014. How did you and Common come together to work on this project?
LW: Well, he got a chance to read the script and he liked it. He called me and we had a really wonderful conversation about the script, our city and what we wanted to do. We began on a quest and fought really hard to make sure the show was the best it could be and as authentic as it could be. It’s the first season, so there are things that we are learning and figuring out. We couldn’t be prouder of this and we want to continue to keep going. We want to continue to dive in and if enough people watch the show and subscribe to Showtime, hopefully we’ll get a season two.
DS: The show was shot on-site in Chicago. Common, what was the most interesting part of that experience for you?
C: When I visited the set, it really felt like being in Chicago. The locations manager is from Chicago, the head of makeup used to do my mother’s hair. It felt like family and it felt like we were giving people from Chicago opportunities. It was amazing and I felt proud that we were a part of this. I was proud that Lena created this because it gave Chicago actors jobs. When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t know I could be an actor. Now, some of the actors in the show are from Chicago. Filming at home brought it all home for me.
DS: How will this show help to shift the narrative of what the country thinks about the South Side of Chicago?
LW: It’s less about trying to shift the perspective and more about opening their eyes to who the people of Chicago are. I don’t know if it’s our job to shift their perspective. I hope they can look at it, see themselves and see the humanity in other people. That is what should affect their worldview. I think that’s the mission. It’s my job to tell the truth as a writer. People can do with that truth what they choose.
C: “The Chi” is a conversation with people from Chicago. You really get to connect with them in different ways. We don’t have to say that we’re black and we’re human. You get to see it because it’s already there. No matter what color you are, you get to relate to it. Anybody can relate to somebody having a dream. It’s like the family member that wants to be a chef or the kid who is too afraid to talk to the girl, but still has a little charisma. It’s a human story and we want to be really great in telling these stories.
DS: The show will feature music from a lot of Chicago musicians. Why was that important to you Common?
C: Music speaks so much to the culture of the people. It’s been a voice for me to express who I am. I definitely believe that Chicago music is so diverse and expresses who we are as a city. Whether it’s Chance the Rapper, Noname, BJ The Chicago Kid, all these different artists show how much depth we have in Chicago and all these different colors that we have. Barry Cole our music supervisor really did an incredible job in taking all these Chicago artists and making them a thread throughout the story. Lena and I felt it was important that Chicago artists get out there and that the music be Chicago oriented because it represents the whole spirit of the show. The city is a character and the music is a character too. When I heard Noname’s song in the pilot, I thought that it was incredible. The mission was to create the energy of Chicago.
DS: Lena, the writing of the show is something you worked meticulously on. How did you go about finding an authentic and unique voice for each character?
LW: I wanted the writing to feel extremely authentic. I’m a stickler for dialogue. I think it has to feel conversational and feel organic. The sound of Chicago is very specific because of our dialogue and our slang. A lot of us our grandchildren of people from The Great Migration. We have a little bit of the south and a little bit of the city. The writing really has to reflect that. It has to reflect our charm and our swag. It has to reflect our community. We want to show the human side of us, but it is rarely ever documented. I wanted to show how we’re all connected, even though we don’t know each other. The person we don’t know yet may be the person we actually need.
“The Chi” premieres this Sunday, January 7th on Showtime at 10pm EST/PST.