For Lena Waithe, slowing down is not an option.
Coming off her 2017 Emmy win for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” Waithe feels like she still has a lot to prove. “I was very blessed to be nominated and receive an award from an industry that I respect a lot. But my hustle doesn’t stop. I don’t rest on that,” she tells ET of the many upcoming projects she has coming up, including Step Sisters, about the president of a black sorority who is forced to help repair the reputation of a white sorority by teaching them how to step, on which she’s a producer, and a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. “I’m still out here grinding -- you know, I got things in the pot.”
That pot also happens to contain her highly anticipated Showtime series, The Chi, which she created and will executive produce alongside Common. Premiering Jan. 7, 2018, the show explores the lives behind the sensational headlines of Chicago’s South Side, which was described as more dangerous than the Middle East by President Donald Trump.
Born and raised in Chicago, Waithe’s goal is to provide a truthful depiction of her city, different from the horrible portrayal many of us have seen or read about in the news. This is also not a show about drug kingpins and mobsters -- it’s not The Sopranos, or even The Wire’s gritty depiction of Baltimore. “I’m really just trying to show people living,” she says. “I want to show people who are young and black. I want to show what it’s like to have a dream, to have a job, what it’s like to have multiple partners in your life, you know, all those things, and it’s just as simple as that. You know, that’s the weird thing about it: This is normal life.”
Waithe’s journey to becoming a primetime storyteller is not by chance. She put in years of work behind the scenes as an assistant to Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Shots Fired) and to an executive producer on Girlfriends as well as serving as a production assistant on Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow. “Yeah, I worked for Gina, I worked for Ava, but ultimately I always wanted to be in the same rooms with them. I wanted to be mentioned in the same sentence,” says Waithe, whose ambition led her to create and write her own web series, Hello Cupid, before joining Bones as a staff writer and helping to produce friend Justin Simien’s Dear White People.
“It’s cool that it’s happening now because of what’s happening in my career, but I always felt an equal to them,” Waithe says of her rising profile -- “not in terms of experience,” she points out, but in terms of “vision.” She, like Prince-Bythewood and DuVernay, are “people of color who all happen to be women [with] a story to tell.”
Waithe is now also part of a community of queer black storytellers bringing new content to Hollywood in a major way. Following Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2017 Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight, which also took home Best Picture, Justin Simien’s TV adaptation of Dear White People became a hit on Netflix, while Dee Rees’ Mudbound and Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women have earned critical acclaim and award season buzz.
While appreciative of the recognition, Waithe is aware of the responsibilities inherent to being a prominent force within a minority. “Every time we step out, we are stepping out with our best because there aren’t many of us. It’s important that every time we go up that we must be great, and that’s not always fair or always fun,” she says. “It’s hard. You want to be able to fail or fall on your face and get back up again, but I don’t know if we have that luxury, and that’s OK. That’s a burden that we just have to bear.”
A burden Waithe is unapologetically willing to carry, however, is sharing her accolades with the black and LGBTQ communities. When accepting her Emmy, she shared her love with her “LGBTQIA family” specifically, saying “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a really cool thing I accomplished. But I share it with the LGBTQIA community, I share it with the black community,” Waithe now says, “because I am a part of both worlds and I would not be up here without the support of both communities and the love of both communities. I look at me as being all of us.”
And now that she has a place of prominence and success within those communities, Waithe hopes to expand their reach in Hollywood even more by “helping to ensure that more voices are heard, that more people have opportunities, and helping ensure their voices are not diluted and that they are coming through the right filters.” She is intent on working “the front line,” as she describes it, by ushering in “directors, writers, new actors and fresh faces.”
“I want to make sure that people who come up after me are protected, and that doesn’t mean they get to have whatever they want, but that it is a collaborative process,” Waithe says. “I want to make sure that artists feel like their work is theirs, and they can stand by it and appreciate it.”
With 2018 filling up -- she'll recur on season two of Dear White People in addition to writing The Chi -- it’s a wonder if she’ll have time to return to Master of None for season three, which still remains to be announced (creator Aziz Ansari has said that if it does happen, it will be the Netflix series’ last). But if it happens, Waithe says “we are all going to come running, and not because we are contractually obligated, but because it’s one of the best jobs we ever had.” The best job -- but certainly not the last for Waithe.
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