Smiles are everywhere on this sunny day as Jacob Latimore, Luke James, Yolonda Ross, Birgundi Baker and Curtiss Cook strike various poses. They are about an hour from the South Side, where the drama of their hit Showtime series The Chi has stirred for the last five seasons.
Heading into the show’s sixth season as Emmett Washington, Victor “Trig” Taylor, the newly married Jada (Washington) Robinson, Kiesha Williams and Otis “Douda” Perry is more than enough reason to celebrate. But there’s also a sense of elevation in the air and, just as important, evolution.
Since the show created and executive produced by Lena Waithe (with Common also serving as an executive producer) first premiered, in 2018, the road to six seasons has been an active one. The Chi’s is a big cast that has also seen several big-name regulars and guest stars —Jason Mitchell, Sonja Sohn, La La Anthony, Tabitha Brown, Kandi Burruss, and, most recently, Lynn Whitfield, along with Chicagoans DeRay Davis, Cory Hardrict, Lil Rel Howery, Vic Mensa, Iman Shumpert, and Jason Weaver, as well as Common and Waithe themselves – tapping in and out. James and Latimore came to the show as known singers and actors.
But name recognition is not the glue that has kept The Chi, an ever-revolving drama set in the city the mainstream media infamously associates with unchecked violence regularly resulting in the mass murder of young Black people. The Chi has tried to get on the other side of that, humanizing a place that people think they know via compelling drama that highlights people instead of just headlines.
“It’s the Black experience. If you can just come on-screen and be real, live truthfully, people will recognize and appreciate that.”
Creator Lena Waithe thinks the little Showtime show that could, produced by 20th Television, is now in its sixth season because fans “are watching us grow up and evolve every year,” and “our audience is evolving as well.”
From day one of the series, we first met Baker, Latimore, and Ross’s characters: Kiesha, Emmett and Jada, in the very first episode of The Chi. Kiesha was hiding under the bed as Emmett, already a teenage father, attempted to shield their sexual escapade from his mother, Jada, who returned home before they had finished hooking up.
“We’ve seen him struggle with accepting that he is a father, and he has to take these responsibilities and become a grown man,” shares Latimore, a Milwaukee native, during a roundtable with his castmates at the Gwen Hotel in downtown Chicago, reflecting on how Emmett began his stint on The Chi. “Every season, we’ve seen him grow and evolve in a way that’s raw and beautiful and just unedited, uncut. It’s been a beautiful thing to really just take on this role and this character. I’ve grown in a lot of ways in my personal life just by being in this role.”
Of course, Ross’s Jada has played a pivotal role in that development. “We met Jada as a single working mother with a young man she’s raised for, I guess like 17, 18 years alone. He’s got a couple of kids and a girl under the bed, and I think it was at the end of that first episode that little EJ was dropped off,” recalls Ross, who hails from Omaha, Nebraska. “It’s like she went through taking care of people, having [Emmett] and his son in the house, and still trying to raise him as a son and make him a young man — which was her whole world — and then also being a part-time babysitter, but also being a single Black woman wanting somebody in her life.”
Jada got that permanent “somebody in her life” in last season’s finale, when she and Emmett’s father, Darnell (Rolando Boyce), wed in a backyard ceremony, with Jada channeling the same earth goddess vibes as Ross herself does in this EBONY shoot in a much grander outdoor setting far away from Jada’s everything on Chicago’s South Side. “I feel like right now, it’s her going through this part of her life that I think she always wanted,” expands Ross. “ ’So we’re married now, what do we do? How do we act?’ All that kind of stuff. It’s new to her as an older woman, so she’s still growing.”
“I always say Kiesha is everything,” says Baker, smiling. “Everybody knows a Kiesha or has a Kiesha in their family or has a friend that has a Kiesha that’s their cousin. She’s just that girl that we all know. Of course, she’s been through a lot. She’s been through everything terrible you can think of, and now she’s a woman we all know.”
One of those terrible things was Kiesha’s disappearance in season three, while her mother, Nina (Tyla Abercrumbie), and her mother’s wife, Dre (Miriam A. Hyman), were on their honeymoon. The search for the smart, feisty girl who was a track star as well as a loving and protective big sister to Kevin (Alex Hibbert) struck an emotional chord with the audience. “People come up to me all the time, and they’re like, ‘I feel like I know you. I feel like my cousin was missing. I feel like my little sister was missing,’ ”Baker shares.
What it means for two melanated actresses to play such prominent roles in The Chi—battling everything from breast cancer, like Jada did in season four, to Kiesha’s grappling with being raped and impregnated by her kidnapper after her rescue—is not lost on Ross and Baker. “I’m emotional because one of my favorite things about this show is them giving me the opportunity to play all those ranges,” says Baker. “Because when I was growing up, I didn’t see dark women go all the way on a show like that. And so this is really, really, really like everything to me. It’s really an honor to be able to do that, because we exist, and we exist just as much as everybody else.”
On Yolonda: Monica Ivena dress, Piers Atkinson headpiece, and Shine Like Me earrings.
The responsibility that comes with it all isn’t lost on Ross, either. “Just like everybody knows a Kiesha, everybody knows a Jada,” she says. “She’s that strong Black woman who’s in the neighborhood taking care of a child, working, taking care of herself, putting money away. She’s that woman. But then, she is also vulnerable. She also has emotions, and to see her in those private moments is I think what makes people really respond and pay attention to the show, pay attention to the characters because they connect to them.”
“When Jada went through cancer, I worked with groups here in Chicago, with Black women going through that journey, because I wanted to make sure that they saw themselves,” Ross continues. “I wanted them to see all the different parts of her, and that’s not always written. Whatever I can do as an actor to bring that to life without words, I wanted to do, and the response to that was huge. So I do feel that we show these characters truthfully, all the sides, [when] maybe another hour or half-hour program will only show the surface.”
On Yolonda: Harbison top and skirt. On Jacob: Kid Super blazer, Aknvas pants, Alex Monroe Earrings, and Tommy Hilfiger shoes. On Birgundi: Harbison dress and gloves, Jazmine Kionna shoes. On Curtiss: Kid Super suit. On Luke: All Beneath Heaven Suit, Aknvas shirt, and Alex Monroe jewelry.
“There’s all shapes of us, there’s all sizes, there’s all ages of us. They’re grounded characters, and they’re grounded people. When you look, you see your neighborhood, you see your people.”
“Being a fan of the show before I got on it, I just felt like everyone was so grounded.”
On Luke James: Tommy Hilfiger suit and shoes, Alex Monroe Earrings, and Talent’s own rings and necklaces.
Baker, a North Carolina native who lived in Chicago prior to being cast in the show, has also used her platform to give back and pay it forward. “Like Yolonda took her work and put it toward the community when Jada was going through battling cancer, I worked with the Black and Missing Foundation while Kiesha was missing,” shares the proud Howard University alum. “Those girls are just completely ignored. It’s almost as if the Blacker you are, the more ignored you get. So I don’t know if this is going to make sense, but it was an honor to be a dark-skinned woman and to represent the actors and the artists and the everyday women who are dark-skinned.”
Recognizing his mother in Ross’s portrayal of Jada is one of the many reasons James says he was initially attracted to the show. “Being a fan of the show before I got on it, I just felt like everyone was so grounded,” explains the New Orleans native. “My first time seeing Jada on-screen, when she comes into Emmett’s room, in the situation I can relate to. Because I, too, was a young man, had a house to myself and a mom at work, and [you’re] trying to have your moments, and you hear that car pull up, and, ‘Oh, you know, bang, get out the back door,’ spraying everything trying to figure it out. I watched that, and I said, ‘That’s my mama,’ the way she spoke. My mother is loving in that way.”
“When I was growing up, I didn’t see dark-skinned women go all the way on a show like this.”
On Birgundi: Moschino suit and jewelry, Brandon Blackwood bag, and Stylist’s own jewelry.
Love was not the vibe, however, with which James’ character, Victor “Trig” Taylor, entered The Chi’s third season. “When we met Trig, he had his little card gambling scheme going on, he had his own little relationship going on, [and] was tucked away in Kankakee; he was forgotten,” says James. That changed when Trig heard that his younger brother Reg (Barton Fitzpatrick) had been killed and Trig came back to the Chi to set a better example for their youngest brother, Jake (Michael V. Epps), whom their drug-addicted mother, Peaches (Sherrice Eaglin), had essentially sold to Douda, forcing Trig to get him back.
Now, in season six, he’s in a very different place and eyeing a political future. “I think he’s in a space of redemption,” James explains. “He’s done so much harm to his community, and now he’s just trying to find where he is in this world as Victor, not Trig.”
Curtiss wears a KidSuper suit, Gola shoes, Shine Like Me lapel pin, Darkai riing and bracelet, and Bonne Clyde glasses.
Trig, James argues, was never who Victor truly was. “I don’t think he ever really wanted to be Trig; I think he had to become Trig. He’s a product of his environment.”
For some, Trig/Victor’s love of trans women has been one of the show’s more controversial elements, especially since the role of ex-girlfriend Imani was portrayed by trans actress Jasmine Davis, and current love interest Fatima is handled by L’lerrét Jazelle, who is also an activist for trans women. James feels The Chi is capturing a truth too many people want to ignore.
Instead of having qualms about playing Trig/Victor, he embraced it. “I’m grateful that I was blessed with this role to embody this character, and to give a face to those who don’t see themselves on TV, as well,” James says, “men who don’t see the way they love on television.”
He’s even more pleased that those relationships aren’t treated as fetishes or presented for entertainment shock value. “Our show is important,” James continues. “It’s not escapism; it’s the world we all live in. If you just look around, it’s the world you live in, and people love in so many different ways.”
Given Kiesha’s two moms, Baker certainly relates to the latter. “I never saw that on TV in a Black household,” she says. “I know that there’s a Black girl out there somewhere with a mom who loves women who has two moms. I know that it’s appreciated. I know people feel like they see themselves on TV, and that’s the goal.”
Cook admits that his character, Otis “Douda” Perry, who came into season two in a recurring role, might just be the most villainous character on The Chi. “We met this kind of cold, calculated gangster dude living up in his penthouse with all the accoutrements of that lifestyle, including the accountant,” says Cook. “Then a couple of minutes later, we see him in a meeting room, talking to a bunch of businessmen and women about change in the community and what we want to do to make this city a different place and how we can do that from his pizza joint, because he was also known as Otis Perry of Perry Pizza.”
What really encouraged Cook to make the role his was the note he received on how to play Douda: “We don’t want to see this hardcore gangster and, all of a sudden, this corny, little nerdy businessman. We want to see a smooth blend from one side to the other with it being just normal, so we don’t know who the real guy is. Is he the gangster? Or is he someplace he’s perpetrating? Which one is it?”
“I love this character a lot,” confesses the Dayton, Ohio, native, who shares Douda’s love for tailored clothes and fine cigars, but not his sociopathic tendencies.
In season six, it looks like the public at large might just find out for sure what the streets have long known about the “mayor of Chicago.” But one casualty from it all might just end up being Emmett, who has accepted Douda’s offer to franchise Smokey’s Barbecue and is being seduced into the fast life of money, nice cars, and tailored suits. Another victim might be Victor, who is now moving from the streets into politics. So while his love life might be a little more stable, Victor’s work life, even on the right side of the law, is still shaky.
On Luke: Tommy Hilfiger suit and shoes, Alex Monroe earrings, and Talent’s own ring and necklaces.
Like Darnell and Jada, Emmett and Kiesha are getting deeper into their relationship despite all their past issues—including a marriage to Kiesha’s friend Tiffany (Hannaha Hall), with whom Emmett shares a son—only without the wedding bells. And the one-time kids, aka the Three Musketeers: Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.), Kevin (Hibbert), and Jake (Epps) are more grown by the day, with lives and drama of their own, with core friends as well as girlfriends who include Jemma (Judae’a Brown), Maisha (Genesis Denise Hale), Lynae (Zaria Imani Primer), Bakari (Ahmad Nicholas Ferguson) and others in the mix.
James, who began his journey with The Chi as a fan, believes the show is still around not just because people are watching it, but because, “They’re willing to have the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable they feel towards [any particular storyline].”
Black people aren’t the only ones watching The Chi, adds Ross. Whenever the actress is back in Nebraska, her white neighbor has many questions, and other white folks there often recognize her. “These relationships happen to everyone,” she insists. “It makes the gap smaller between races when other people can see that, ‘Oh yeah, they do s**t just like us.’ ”
Ghana also watches The Chi, Latimore discovered. “I went to Africa; I was out there for Afrochella. I was just going to all the different after-parties, and the security were just big fans,” he marvels. As he skipped the lines and made his way to the front, he was even more pleasantly surprised by the “Where’s Kiesha?” inquiries. “It was a fulfilling moment,” he says of the recognition. “In the motherland, at home, [with] our people, it felt even better.”
“It’s the Black experience,” says Baker of the show’s success, especially against its critics. “I feel like real recognizes real. And if you can just come on-screen and be real, live truthfully, people will recognize and appreciate that.”
“There’s all shapes of us, there are all sizes, there are all ages of us. Like Yolonda was saying, they’re grounded characters, and they’re grounded people,” expounds Cook. “When you look, you see your neighborhood, you see your people.”
“Our show is magic,” he ultimately declares. And with six seasons to its credit, who can disagree?
The sixth season of The Chi, produced by 20th Television, will premiere Friday, August 4, streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime plan.
Ronda Racha Penrice, a Chicago native, is the author of Black American History for Dummies and the editor of Cracking the Wire During Black Lives Matter.
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