You may know Lena Waithe from Netflix’s Master of None. She perfectly captures Denise, Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) lesbian best friend, without being a stereotype. The actress and screenwriter quickly found her personal story in the spotlight following season two’s masterfully written and acted “Thanksgiving” episode. “I never had a desire to tell that story, per se,” the 33-year-old explained to EBONY.com. It’s Denise’s coming out story to her very black and traditional family. The episode was critically acclaimed, earning an Emmy-nomination. Perhaps it resonated so beautifully because it draws from Waithe’s own experiences.
Master of None isn’t the only thing the 33-year-old has on her plate. She’s also working on her forthcoming Showtime series, The Chi, which stars Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell. The Chi follows five Black men from the South Side of Chicago. Brandon (Mitchell) dreams of opening a restaurant but feels responsible for his alcoholic mother and teenage brother who still live on the city’s tumultuous South Side.
EBONY.com sat down with the Chi-town native to chat about writing “Thanksgiving” with Master of None creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, and why The Chi will give a voice to the city of Chicago.
EBONY.com: Let’s chat about the “Thanksgiving” episode. It’s super dope. I know this was a deeply personal episode for you to write because this comes from your experience of coming out to your mother. What was that like for you?
Lena Waithe: It was interesting. I think for me as an artist I never had a desire to tell that story, per se. I just felt like I want to show queer people, particularly a queer Black woman, post that part of her life. Dating, hanging out with her friends, kicking it [and] having a certain kind of swag. I feel like most of our stories tend to be coming-of-age, which happens to include a coming out theme. When do we get past that? Talking to Aziz and Alan they were like, “Yeah, but this story is one we haven’t really seen before. This kind of coming out. We need to keep things fresh. That’s what this show is all about.” So they really convinced me to do this. I was like, “Do we do that with Denise?” And they were like, “It’s just so interesting.” So it was “Okay.” I didn’t have any intention of writing it. I literally told Al and Aziz to the T all the stuff you see. I just told it to them in the writer’s room. I was like, “You guys will still write it and come back and tell me what we’re shooting.” They were like, “Nah, we need your writing too. We need you to help us with it.” I was also apprehensive about that because I was a bit of a busy chick. I was filming something in London last year, and Aziz literally came out to London so we could write the episode together.
EBONY.com: What was the writing process like?
LW: It was a phenomenal experience. He and I had a couple of days, literally in a hotel room to write out the episode. What we shot is 90% of what we wrote in that hotel room in London. It was fantastic and the process was really cool. I had never really written with somebody like that. We would pass the laptop back and forth. When we got to really personal scenes he would leave the room and I would just kind of be in there literally remembering that place. It’s a scary thing to come out. It’s a place I don’t go back to every day, but to kind of just sit in it and to relive that, to know I survived it, to know I came through it was really powerful. It was a really amazing experience. And for people to respond to it the way they have I think is just revolutionary. You don’t expect the world to embrace this gay Black girl from the South Side of Chicago telling her story about what it was like to come out to her very straight mother [Angela Bassett], her very warm and straight silly aunt [Kym Whitley] and all this kind of stuff. People really just kind of took to the episode and I’m so grateful. It really is a tribute to my family. It’s a tribute to how strong you have to be to come out not just to your mom, but to yourself, to your friends and to the world. It really just was a wonderful gift that Aziz and Alan gave me. I didn’t even realize at the time that it was such a huge gift. But I’m just glad that we got to do it.
EBONY: Speaking of being a Black girl from the South Side of Chicago, we have to talk about The Chi. What’s your mission with the series as a whole?
LW: I’m super excited to have that opportunity. I wrote a pilot a couple of years ago in my apartment in the Valley. I made it very blunt and honest and real and human. I didn’t know how people were going to react to it. The industry really appreciated the words and the characters I created. My mission is to humanize the people of the city. I ask that people be patient with us in the first season, we’re trying to figure it out. It’s not just me. I have a lot of producing partners that work with me on the show. I think my biggest thing is definitely to maintain the integrity of the city. That’s my goal. Common and his team are involved as well. That’s our mission to make sure that we can make something that the city can be proud of and they can hopefully just sort of roll with us while we really try to figure it out. I don’t know if people always get it right on the first time. Ultimately for me it’s to humanize the people. Everybody isn’t all good there. I can only talk about the people that often get stigmatized, and show them as a human face. I think there’s a thing of “Well why do people do that, why do folks do that?” I’m like, “That’s a loaded question.” I think for me it’s just like I wanna kind of get a sense of why they feel like they don’t have any other resort. Not to make it okay, but just to kind of show that maybe people can look at them from a different angle. “Oh, I guess I kinda see why they feel so hopeless, or why they think that that’s what they have to do.”At the same time we also want to show day-to-day people living their lives, working regular jobs and keeping that entertaining too. It’s tough when it’s a whole city because there’s a lot of pressure. If you look at something like Atlanta, Donald [Glover] did beautifully.
Waithe’s “Thanksgiving” has been nominated for an Emmy.
Seasons One and Two of Master of None are currently streaming on Netflix.