'The Chi' Creator Lena Waithe Says Television 'Taught Me How To Dream'

Jan 11, 2018
Originally published on January 12, 2018 7:24 pm

In 2017, Lena Waithe made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing. The award specifically recognized Master of None's "Thanksgiving" episode, which Waithe co-wrote with Aziz Ansari and based on her experience coming out to her mother.

Looking back on her Emmy win, Waithe says, "That a queer, black girl could tell her story and not just tell it, but be celebrated for it ... that's a moment that only comes once in a lifetime."

Now Waithe is lending her voice to a new project. Showtime's The Chi, which she created and executive produces, explores the ripple effects of a deadly shooting in a South Side Chicago community a lot like the one Waithe grew up in.

Waithe acknowledges that some of the broad themes of The Chi may feed into clich├ęs about inner-city communities. But, she says, "I wasn't trying to feed the stereotype at all. I wanted to face the stereotype head on, and then turn it on its head; or force you to look at where stereotypes come from, because there is a truth in all of them."


Interview Highlights

On what she hoped to accomplish with The Chi

I think I wanted to show our humanness. I don't think we've really seen that. I think that, for the most part, black people specifically have sort of been used as props in TV shows as a way to move story along, or as a way to make things more entertaining. ...

The neighborhood I grew up in was really quaint and felt like a community. That's a thing that I think people don't ever see. I think they sort of assume Chicago is just one big jungle, and that little black boys are born with a gun in their right hand and a pile of drugs in their left, and that's just not true. All little black children are born with the same amount of hope and love and joy as every other kid.

On the significance of her Emmy win

Having been at the [Golden] Globes this past weekend and hearing Oprah's amazing speech for receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award, she spoke about seeing Sidney Poitier receive an Oscar. And to do so so eloquently, it reminded me of being a teenager in Evanston, Ill., watching Halle Berry walk up those steps and break open that door and receive that moment so beautifully and so eloquently. And I still can remember that speech: "This moment is for every faceless woman of color who now has a chance because tonight this door has been opened ..." I can remember it like it were yesterday.

I know how impactful those moments are, and I knew that I was stepping in line with those people, to be a first, to be someone people can look to and say, "The impossible does not exist. I, too, can be up there as well."

On what Master of None's "Thanksgiving" episode is really about

The entire crux of the episode is that ... [the mother's] issue is not really that I'm gay, but it's how will the world react to the fact that I'm gay? How will they treat me? How will they judge me? Will they treat me like a second-class citizen because of it? ...

For [my mother] ... it was more about, "What will the neighbors think?" And I think that's something that a lot of people of color care about. And also, too, not just "What will the neighbors think?" but "What will white people think?" That's really at the root of it. So that's why so many people of color who are part of the queer community have reached out to me and said, "Yeah, that's what my coming out experience was like."

On how The Cosby Show inspired her to pursue a career in television

When I was that age [7], Thursday night must-see television happened to be The Cosby Show and A Different World, and I'm always grateful for that. I know that Cosby's actions are ones that have really devastated, I think, not just the victims but the people that looked up to him as well. I think we feel betrayed and violated, too. But it doesn't take away the joy [of] that theme music, that playful and sporadic jazz theme music that you hear. And you know it the second you hear it, with The Cosby Show -- you know that something beautiful and black and funny and amazing is going to happen. ... You can't take that away from my childhood. ...

I saw so much of myself and so much of what I wanted to be in those shows. That really is the thing that made me go, "I want to be a part of whatever that world is," and it's the thing that really set me on that path. And I'm just grateful that my mom and my grandmother said, "Yeah, these are all shows that we can watch together." And it's the one time that my family would huddle in a room and watch something together. ...

I think it gave me a real sense of television history, and it gave me a sense of what television can be and what it can do for someone. What television did for me was it taught me how to dream. It taught me what to dream about. And I'm grateful that I get to write that now, because somebody may look at a show I've written and start dreaming, and that means a lot to me.

Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Lena Waithe created the new Showtime series "The Chi," which premiered last Sunday. It set in the South Side of Chicago, where Waithe grew up. One of the executive producers is Common, who's also from Chicago. He's in the cast of "The Chi," too. Last year, Waithe became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series. She won for co-writing - with Aziz Ansari - the "Thanksgiving" episode of his series "Master Of None." It's the episode in which the character Waithe plays comes out to her mother. The story draws on Waithe's own experience coming out.

Let's start by talking about "The Chi." The series begins with a teenage boy finding a young man lying on the sidewalk, shot to death. The series follows how this murder affects the boy who found the body, and family and friends of that boy and the victim.

Lena Waithe, welcome to FRESH AIR. Were there things you wanted to show about life on the South Side that you felt hadn't been shown on TV?

LENA WAITHE: I think I wanted to show our humanness. I don't think we've really seen that. I think that for the most part, black people specifically have sort of been used as props in TV shows as a way to move story along or as a way to make things more entertaining. And I really wanted us to be the protagonist of our own story. And I really wanted to go in and paint us with a really tiny brush so that way, people could get a real, accurate depiction of what it means to be just black, and human and living in America, and particularly on the South Side of Chicago because that's what I know pretty well. And I just really wanted to show our faces and really show our souls.

GROSS: So what sets the ball rolling in terms of the plotline is a murder of a man.

WAITHE: Correct.

GROSS: And, like, several people and several families get involved because this murder has affected them. And several of these people end up with guns, either for self-defense or for revenge. And so, you know, part of the stereotype of the South Side is that, like, everybody's got a gun, and everybody's got an addiction. So did you worry that you might be perceived as feeding into that by creating this as something of a crime story?

WAITHE: No. I think, to me, I always want to tell the truth. I never want to sugarcoat things. I've never been accused of pulling punches. I wanted to really just tell a really honest story. And I'm aware that a lot of our - particularly, black men, but - and women, as well - have fallen, you know, victim to gun violence, and a lot of us have been touched by it. And I - what I really wanted to do was get in people's faces a little bit about that. And then what I wanted to do was pull back really, really wide and show the entire picture of how these things happen and what the effect of these things happening can be.

I really wanted to show the ripple effects, honestly, because I think that's the thing that nobody seems to focus on. The camera seems to move away once the person has been shot and killed, or once the trigger has been pulled, or one the good cop comes in and saves the day. I wanted to go into the living rooms and see the moms, see them missing their children, see their siblings grappling with the decision of, should I just accept this, or should I do something about it?

And I wanted to see how that person's significant other has to deal with that and the fear of what happens if they go to avenge their brother or their son's death. So I wasn't trying to feed the stereotype at all. I wanted to face the stereotype head-on and then turn it on its head or then force you to look at where stereotypes really come from because there's a truth in all of them, obviously, or they wouldn't - stereotype wouldn't exist. But I really wanted to examine it from a real human perspective.

GROSS: Were you or your family affected by gun violence when you were growing up on the South Side?

WAITHE: Not directly, no. But I think when I was growing up, it wasn't as bad as it is now, and it also wasn't - we - I don't know if we were the center of attention. I grew up in the early '90s. I was born in '84. And also, the neighborhood I grew up in was really quaint and felt like a community. And I think that's a thing that I don't think people ever see. I think they just sort of assume Chicago is just one big jungle and that little black boys are born with a gun in their right hand, a pile of drugs in their left. And I just - that's just not true.

We're - all little black children are born with the same amount of hope, and love and joy as every other kid. And we were not affected by it, but there were - but my family definitely was affected with substance abuse, and we were affected by a bit of a separation. You know, my father left the home quite early, and we lived in my grandmother's house, and we had to lean on others here and there to survive. But I think, for me, I really wanted to tell the story of what's happening in Chicago right now.

GROSS: So you were raised by a single mother and a grandmother.

WAITHE: Yes.

GROSS: You say your family had to lean on others to survive. What do you mean?

WAITHE: And I don't mean financially because we never had everything we wanted, but we never wanted for anything. But when I say lean on people, I mean, if I were out in the streets and my mother wasn't home, you better believe the next-door neighbor is keeping an eye on me. We didn't call the police. We policed ourselves. My grandmother hosted a lot of neighborhood watch meetings. We - she had weekly poker games at the house where people would come, and fellowship, and communicate, and gossip, and tell jokes, and drink and smoke.

And I say we leaned on each other to survive because even though we were a neighborhood made up of many different families, we were almost as if we were one big family. And so that's really the Chicago and the community I know very well, and I know that the community still exists there, but it's only something you know if you're born and raised in that city. But if you're a foreigner from outside looking in, you can never imagine that those stories even exist.

GROSS: In "The Chi," there is a 12-year-old who - I won't get into all of his issues. I don't want to do any big spoilers here. But he gets enlisted to be in a school production of "The Wiz." (Laughter) And I really enjoy that part of the story.

WAITHE: Thank you.

GROSS: And I figured there must be some personal resonance for you since you were always so deeply interested in being a TV writer. And also, one of your aspirations is to do a TV series called "The Twenties" (ph), loosely inspired on - by your life when you were in your 20s. And there's a pilot.

WAITHE: And actually, it's just called "Twenties."

GROSS: It's just called "Twenties."

WAITHE: No the.

GROSS: Yeah, that's right.

WAITHE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, the 20s sounds like 1920s, yeah.

WAITHE: (Laughter).

GROSS: But anyway, so there is a pilot for it that is living on YouTube and...

WAITHE: A pilot presentation.

GROSS: Yes. And in that, a character says that they prefer "The Wizard Of Oz" to "The Wiz" even though "The Wizard Of Oz" had the white cast and "The Wiz," the black cast.

WAITHE: Correct.

GROSS: Does that speak for you, too?

WAITHE: Well, it's interesting because Rick Famuyiwa, who does a phenomenal job directing the pilot - and I'm very grateful to him. I always call him the black superman. He sort of swooped in, and saved us and really elevated what was on the page. He really suggested that we do a play, and "The Wiz" is really a shout-out to my mom because I did prefer the white one, so to speak. I loved "The Wizard Of Oz." It was, like, you know how some kids, they're crying, and they put on - people put on "Frozen" to get them to chill and just be quiet? For my family, it was "The Wizard Of Oz." They would literally tell babysitters, if she gets - like, if she starts misbehaving or she starts acting crazy, just put "The Wizard Of Oz" on.

But my mom one day came home - because, you know, her brain is like, oh, my black child loves "The Wizard Of Oz" so much, I should introduce her to "The Wiz." Like, I should show her, hey, there's a group of people that did a black version of this thing that you love so much. How cool would it be for you to see yourself in this movie? And so the thing about "The Wiz," though, which I now as an adult understand how genius it is and how beautifully done it is, even though some people may say it's imperfect. It's a really beautiful effort and really brave, actually, as well, and ambitious. And so - but my mom showed it to me, and I was like, I don't know what this is, but I want Judy Garland back.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: And I never want to speak of this again. And it really, I think, broke her heart a little bit. She was like, oh, my God. Like, she has no love for the Diana Ross and Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson version. I didn't even know that was Michael Jackson as a scarecrow. I couldn't interpret any of it. And so with the kids I think now...

GROSS: You're making it sound like it was really traumatic to see this (laughter).

WAITHE: It was. It's like - no.

GROSS: It's another version (laughter).

WAITHE: It's like showing a little black kid a black version of "Frozen," which might go over better now. I don't know. But for me, I was just like, I need the white people, the black and white and the thing that I know very well. But to me, I was really happy that Rick pushed me to do that. And I thought the play was such a beautiful way to also - it does. It takes us through the entire first season. You see the - it's a beautiful touchpoint for the kids and a place of refuge as well, not unlike for me, that - which was, like, watching TV or being in plays. And I was in plays in high school as well.

But I really kind of wanted to do something that was unapologetically black when it came to choosing the play. And Rick was like, well, what you want to play to be? And I was like, why don't we do "The Wiz?" And he really loved that. And I really - it was a nice way to pay tribute, I think, to that moment, that heartbreaking moment when my mom tried to convert me to "The Wiz" and I wasn't ready yet. And now I have a lot more appreciation for that version. So there you go, Mom.

GROSS: I'm sure she appreciates that. That's great.

WAITHE: Yes, yes. It took a while.

GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break (laughter). Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series "The Chi" and won an Emmy last year for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of Aziz Ansari's series, "Master Of None." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "ADRENALINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series that runs Sunday nights called "The Chi." It's set in the South Side of Chicago. And last year, she won an Emmy for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of the Aziz Ansari series "Master Of None." So you grew up on the South Side of Chicago, but when you were 12, you moved to the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Why did your mother want to move?

WAITHE: Schools - point blank. And also, too, I think she was ready to move out of her mom's house with her two kids. I think that can be quite taxing. So she decides to move, and we went to public school there. And I attended Chute Middle School and then I attended Evanston Township High School. And those experiences, I really believe, are the reason why I'm sitting here talking to you today. I think that really had a huge impact on me to be - yes, I was in a suburb, but I wasn't - by no means was I the only black kid in the school. It wasn't Skokie, and Evanston was very diverse.

And I went to school with kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different religions, different ethnicities. And it was like going from, you know, an all-black school to "Saved By The Bell" but in the best possible way. I remember hearing intercoms, and I was like, what is this? What's happening? And it was just great. I really flourished, and I'm grateful that she did that because it really helped shape the person I am.

GROSS: When you move, did you already know you were gay?

WAITHE: I've known I was gay since I was young, I think. And I mean young, like, young, like 5 or 6. I think most gay people or queer people know there's something different about them very early, but I didn't know what to call it. I didn't have a name for it. And I think that's a big part of that is because - well, we live in a very heterosexual society. But also I'm, you know, living in a house with black people. That's not something they're talking about. It's not something that was talked about in the media a lot. And so I just had no name for what I was. I just knew I tended to stare at girls more than I stared at boys. That's all I knew.

GROSS: So do you think moving to a diverse neighborhood made it easier in the long run for you to come out?

WAITHE: I don't think anything makes it easier for anyone to come out. I think coming out is the most difficult thing anyone can do. And there's just nothing easy about it. I think me moving to Los Angeles and being away from my family a little bit gave me the freedom to explore who I was and to be free to do it without getting caught, without somebody seeing me being myself and reporting back to someone in my family. I think moving to Los Angeles - and I didn't do that until 2006. Even though I knew, obviously, when I was in college - and I went to Columbia College in Chicago, so I was still - and I was living at home with my mom, so I wasn't able to have the experiences one has when you go away to college. And I think a big part of that is because I wasn't ready to leave Chicago yet. I just wasn't ready to leave. And then when I did finally leave, I spread my wings a bit. And I had a real sense of freedom for the first time, and I could admit to myself that I was a queer person.

GROSS: You wrote an episode for Aziz Ansari's series "Master Of None" in which the character that you play, who is a lesbian, comes out to her mother. It's a flashback episode. It's the "Thanksgiving" episode, and it starts with your character and Aziz Ansari's characters, who are best friends, at your house for Thanksgiving because every Thanksgiving he comes over to your house and celebrates Thanksgiving with you, your mother, your aunt and your grandmother. And then as the episode goes on, it flash-forwards a few years and then it flash-forwards a few more years and then a few more years, with each part of the episode set during a Thanksgiving dinner. And in the early episode - the early part of the episode as kids, you come out to Aziz, and he's kind of like, OK (laughter), you know.

WAITHE: Right, as most friends say, right.

GROSS: Yeah. And then later in the episode, you come out to your mother at, like, diner or restaurant. And I want to play that scene because this is the episode that you won the Emmy for co-writing with Aziz. So here's your character and your mother, who's played by Angela Bassett, at a restaurant where you're about to tell her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTER OF NONE")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Catherine) How are you this tall and you don't play basketball?

WAITHE: (As Denise) I know. It sucks.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) A basketball scholarship would've come in real handy right now (laughter) but I'm just glad you in college and you ain't pregnant and on drugs.

WAITHE: (As Denise) You don't got to worry about me getting pregnant.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Why? You got that UID thing?

WAITHE: (As Denise) OK, first of all, it's not a UID. OK. It's not a thing. It's the IUD.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Mm.

WAITHE: (As Denise) But you ain't got to worry about me and pregnancy.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) You got saved. You done come to the Lord.

WAITHE: (As Denise) No. I don't know why you keep asking me that. I'm not going to get pregnant because I don't like having sex with men.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Have you tried it?

WAITHE: (As Denise) No.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Then how you know you don't like it?

WAITHE: (As Denise) It's just something I know.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Well, what you trying to say? What is the problem?

WAITHE: (As Denise) I'm just annoyed that I even have to have this conversation with you.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) What conversation? I'm sitting here being normal. You acting like a crazy person.

WAITHE: (As Denise) Ma, I'm gay.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) You what?

WAITHE: (As Denise) I'm gay. I've always been gay. But I'm still the same person. I'm still your daughter. Nothing's changed. What's wrong? Ma, why are you crying?

BASSETT: (As Catherine) I just - I don't want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in this world. Now you want to add something else to that?

WAITHE: (As Denise) It's not like this was my choice. It's just who I am.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Well, who else you done told?

WAITHE: (As Denise) Just Dev.

BASSETT: (As Catherine) Yeah, of course. You know you can't tell your grandmother.

WAITHE: (As Denise) Why?

BASSETT: (As Catherine) 'Cause she won't be able to handle this. And you know how forgetful she is. You're going to have to come out to her every other week.

GROSS: OK. So that was Lena Waithe and Angela Bassett in an episode - the "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master Of None." And that was co-written by Lena Waithe. So my impression is a lot of that scene comes from your experience coming out to your mother.

WAITHE: Every single aspect of it...

GROSS: Really?

WAITHE: ...Is. I mean, yeah.

GROSS: OK. So let's start with something that our listeners couldn't see. As soon as your character starts explaining that she's gay, the mother starts looking around the restaurant like, is anybody hearing this? I hope not (laughter).

WAITHE: Absolutely, yeah.

GROSS: Did your mother do that, just, like, look around, like who's overhearing us?

WAITHE: I don't know if she did it at the actual time, but what I was trying to convey - and I'm always grateful when people pick up on that little, small nugget because it's literally written in the action lines. And it's written there because it's the - the entire crux of the episode is that that's her issue. It's not really that I'm gay, but it's, how will the world react to the fact that I'm gay? How will people treat me? How will they judge me? Will they treat me like a second-class citizen because of it? And that's really the fear - is not the innate issue with it but the world's issue with it truly.

GROSS: My guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series "The Chi." After a break, we'll talk more about coming out and about the speech she made after winning an Emmy. We'll also talk about how she find - how she found her personal style after coming out, including the great tuxedo she wore at the Emmy ceremony. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "CHILD OF THE 808")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lena Waithe, the creator of the Showtime series "The Chi," which is set in the South Side of Chicago where Waithe lived until she was 12. Episode two is coming up this Sunday. Last year, she became the first African-American woman to receive an Emmy for writing for a comedy series. It was for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of Aziz Ansari's series "Master Of None," in which Waithe plays one of his best friends. In one scene in that episode, her character, Denise, comes out to her mother. It's based on Waithe's experience.

Was there a religious component to your mother's concern about you being a lesbian?

WAITHE: Not really. It wasn't a huge thing. Look, I always say that my family is made up of lazy Christians, and that's because they believe and they taught me to believe, but they got to church when they could. But we definitely went every Easter. They can't quote the Bible to save their lives. It's the reason why I can't. I seriously - I cannot give you a Bible verse. But I'm a huge believer in God, and Jesus Christ, and that God made me and all those things. And I try to just be a good person. I think that is the base of my religion, is to be good, is to be honest.

And I think my mother just never got wrapped up in the Bible in that way, so she - and because she wasn't wrapped up in it, she couldn't throw it at me when I came out to her. For her, it was more about keeping up with the Joneses. It was more about, what will the neighbors think? And I think that's something that a lot of people of color care about. What - and also, too, not just, what will the neighbors think? But, what are white people going to think? That's really at the root of it. And so I think that's why so many people of color who are part of the queer community have reached out to me and said, yeah, that's what my coming-out experience was like. It was more that.

And I think it was just so much more nuanced than, you're going to hell. And mind you, that's some people's experiences, and I don't mean to diminish that at all. But I think for a lot of us, it's just more of a judgment call that has nothing to do with the Bible but more about, oh, how people perceive you - what are people going to think? - due to something I did. That's what it really becomes more about, for me, and my family and my experience.

GROSS: Yeah, well, your character says to Aziz's character in the series, being gay is harder for black people; it isn't something black people like to talk about. Some black people think being gay is a choice, and when they find out their kid is gay, they try to figure out what they did wrong - you know, what the parent did wrong.

WAITHE: Right.

GROSS: Did your mother wonder what she did wrong? Because, like, in the episode, the mother goes home and says to her sister, your aunt, is it because I couldn't keep a man? So do you think your mother thought, like, she did something wrong and that's why you turned out gay?

WAITHE: I think she was very confused by it. And again, I'm a person that has a sibling who is very straight. So there's a - oh, I think from my mom, a wondering of, well, why is Lena gay and her older sister, Lauren, isn't? She's actually quite the opposite. And it is - I think there was just a curiosity. I definitely think she had a lot of conversations with her friends - not unlike the character does in the episode - like that. Well, like, what does this mean? Like, should I have known? Was I not paying attention? Is it because I'm not married? Is it because I - she's not seeing a healthy, happy heterosexual relationship? There's just a list of things. And - at the end of the day, it's very self-centered, and I think that's fine.

I have to just sort of own that sometimes your parent can make your gay experience about them because sometimes that's what - just what parents do. But for me, I really - it's hard to explain to someone that being gay is like being born with brown hair or blue eyes or darker skin. There's you - there's no choice in the matter. It's just how I believe God made you. And I think there's - he doesn't make any mistakes, so what's the issue? But I think for my mother, who, again, grew up during a different time, thought that it was her fault or she messed up in a way or maybe she should have forced me to wear more dresses as a kid. But the truth is, we all know that that's just silliness. There's nothing she could've done.

GROSS: Did she try to make you wear dresses?

WAITHE: Of course. She - you know, I mean, and she did for a while until I started to really rebel and say, no, I don't want to do that; I want to wear, you know, my overalls or I want to wear my jeans and my sneakers and my - you know, my hoodies. And I think that really bothered her because she's a very feminine woman. My sister is a very feminine woman. Every woman in my family is very feminine. So when I started to feel more comfortable in my androgynous spirit, I think it did kind of make them go, what? That's weird. And I think they just thought - they just chalked it up to me being weird. And when I put a name to it and realized, oh, no, I'm not just androgynous, I'm a soft stud...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...Which, in the lesbian community, is a way of saying someone who - or you can say is masculine presenting but still has feminine qualities. I think they start - well, not they, really. My mother started to realize, oh, so not only are you a lesbian, but you're a very obvious lesbian. I think it might have been easier for her if I were a lipstick lesbian, if I were a femme because then at least that way, people couldn't judge me on sight. But I got to a place where I didn't care if people judged me on sight. Like, this is how I feel comfortable. This is how I choose to present myself to the world. And so it was really a process for her because of how I dress and how I walk the world. And I think she has had to really make peace with it. And it took some time. It always takes time.

GROSS: Was it a process...

WAITHE: I think she's still grappling with it.

GROSS: Was it a process for you, too, to figure out how you wanted to present yourself visually?

WAITHE: Of course. Of course. Although, I mean, someone could look at my childhood photos and go, was it really a process?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: You've always sort of dressed like Da Brat. But I think as I got older and moved again - moved to LA - I started to really experiment with fashion. I started to look at the way certain men dressed and - because even - because I sort of love that some men dress in a very effeminate way and aren't necessarily gay. And so I just love taking risks and taking chances with fashion, and even, like, at the Emmys or this year at the Golden Globes. I like to - I'm going to wear a suit.

GROSS: OK. I'm going to...

WAITHE: And - but I'm going to do it...

GROSS: We're stopping right here.

WAITHE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Because at the Emmys last year, when you got the Emmy for co-writing the "Master Of None" episode, you were wearing this, like, great tuxedo. And it was, like, a silver-and-black tuxedo.

WAITHE: It was, like, gold. It was, like, gold.

GROSS: Was it gold? OK.

WAITHE: ...Like, flakes on this amazing blazer. It was made by Alba - A-L-B-A. This amazing Asian-American woman is a designer, and she does all the clothes for the guys on "Ballers" and all that kind of stuff. And she has such a great eye. And I told her - I said, I definitely want to be in this, like, tuxedo, but it has to be a special one. It has to be amazing. There has to be something unique and swaggy (ph) about it. And she was like, OK, cool.

And maybe because it was the Emmys, she was like, I'm going to do sort of a gold design and give you, you know, a little pop, and - because whether I won or lost, I was like, yo, I got to make a moment out of this because I was still the first African-American woman to be nominated in the comedy-writing category. So I was like, even if I go home without the trophy, I got to look like a trophy. And I feel like that's what she made me look like.

GROSS: Yeah, I...

WAITHE: She made me look like a winner.

GROSS: Yeah, and you had a great, like, tuxedo shirt with a bow tie. It was very, very sharp.

WAITHE: Thank you.

GROSS: Do you shop in men's departments?

WAITHE: I do. I do. I sometimes have to get things in medium so that way - because I don't like things to be too baggy. I've kind of grown out of that stage. So that's what I try to do. I try to sort of make the male clothes fit my aesthetic. And I think I can kind of make clothes that are made for men almost appear as if they were made to be worn by a woman.

I think that's always my mission - to make things - you know, to bend them and to make them fit my style and my swag. And I'm really happy people tend to like my sense of style. But I honestly - I really do dress for comfort. I may look stylish, but I'm always really comfortable. And I like sneakers, obviously. That's, I mean, an addiction that I have because I'm just from Chicago, and it's sort of ingrained into me.

GROSS: So I sometimes shop in boys' departments. I sometimes shop in girls' departments because I'm small. And so I always feel like I have to explain myself to the salesperson. Do you know...

WAITHE: Oh, my gosh.

GROSS: Like, do you go through that? Like, if you're going into, say, a men's store, and you have to go into the dressing room, do you have to explain - like, do you feel any need to?

WAITHE: You know, not as much anymore, interestingly enough. And I think that's just because it's a sign of the times, that a lot of women, I think, they are wearing men's clothes - who aren't even gay. But I think when I was in Chicago still and I would, you know, grab clothes from the men's section, I remember there were a couple sales clerks that would go, oh, but you know that's a men's shirt? And I would go, yeah, I know. I prefer that. Or they'd go, oh, well, these are men's pants. And I'd go, yup, I'm aware. So I think I experienced that a little bit. But in LA, like, please. No one questions anything. You could be trying on a banana suit, and no one would bat an eye.

GROSS: (Laughter) Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series "The Chi," and last year, she won an Emmy for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master Of None." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series "The Chi," which is set in the South Side of Chicago. And last year, she won an Emmy for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master Of None."

OK, we've talked about what you wore to the Emmys. Let's talk about what you actually said. In fact, let's hear an excerpt of your acceptance speech. And this is Lena Waithe at the 2017 Emmy Awards.

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WAITHE: And last but certainly not least, my LGBQTIA family - I see each and every one of you.

(CHEERING)

WAITHE: The things that make us different - those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape, and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren't in it. And for everybody out there that showed us so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know. Thank you, academy, for this.

GROSS: And the Indian boy is, of course, Aziz Ansari, who co-wrote the episode with you. So earlier, you thank your mother for inspiring the story and also allowing you to tell it. And what went into figuring out what to say for this acceptance? Because you wanted to thank your mother. You also thanked your chosen family, and you wanted to give a shout-out to the whole LGBTQIA community. And should we say what IA stands for?

WAITHE: Sure. For those that don't know, it means intersex and asexual.

GROSS: Thank you. So what went into figuring out what to say and how to say it?

WAITHE: I think - well, here's the thing. When there's multiple writers, apparently, on a script, the academy sends a letter and asks that you choose one of those people to speak on your behalf because obviously there's, like, 45 seconds. So Aziz quickly said, Lena - Lena's going to take it; she'll handle it. So I remember feeling, interestingly enough, a little nervous about that. I kind of, I think, was hoping we'd be able to share that moment because then the pressure wouldn't all be on me. But Aziz was like, nah, you do it. You handle it. And I was a little nervous about that moment just because of what was surrounding it and the weight of it because I was the first African-American woman to be nominated, because I was the only woman in the category that year. I felt the weight of that moment.

And my lovely now-fiancee - she was just my girlfriend at the time - Alana Mayo, said, look, do housekeeping first, then speak from your heart, and make it quick. That's what she told me to do. And I didn't write anything down, and Aziz was nervous about that. He's like, oh, my God, you're going to get flustered. And I just said, I don't think so. I said, if I get up there, I'm going to take a breath, I'm going to thank who I need to thank, and I'm going to call on the ancestors, and hope that they back me up and hold me up, and I'm going to make a moment out of it. And that's what I did.

And I feel honored to have stood on that stage. I was extremely flattered when people stood up. That's something you never - you just - you don't expect that. But I'm really grateful because they gave me a second to breathe. But then I got nervous because I said, wait a minute, I don't want to run out of time here. I don't want to get played off. That was my biggest fear, that they would play me off. And I'm grateful that they didn't. But I think because I've been...

GROSS: Were you going to object if they did? Because some people lightly have been saying like, don't play me off.

WAITHE: Right, give me a second.

GROSS: It's taken me years to get here.

WAITHE: Maybe. Maybe I would've. Maybe. You know, that could be a cool thing. But I just didn't want that to happen. So I was just trying to remember my lovely lady's words of just being quick and concise. But I think - and it's interesting because having been at the Globes this past weekend and hearing Oprah's amazing speech for receiving the Cecil B. DeMille award - she spoke about seeing Sidney Poitier receive an Oscar - and to do so so eloquently.

It reminded me of being a teenager in Evanston watching Halle Berry walk up those steps, and break open that door, and receive that moment so beautifully and so eloquently. And I still can remember her speech. You know, this moment is for every faceless, you know, woman of color who now has a chance because tonight, this door has been opened. This moment is bigger than me. It's Dorothy Dandridge. It's Lena Horne. It's for the women that stand beside me. It's Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox, Jada Pinkett.

And I can remember it like it were yesterday. I know how impactful those moments are, and I knew that I was stepping in line with those people to be a first, to be someone that people can look to and say, the impossible does not exist; I, too, can be up there, as well. And I think that's what I really wanted that moment to be - not just about me, not just about an episode of television, but about us as a society.

That a queer black girl could tell her story and not just tell it, but be celebrated for it, to have Oprah Winfrey stand on her feet and applaud, to have Reese Witherspoon, to have Robert De Niro, to have Nicole Kidman, to have all the amazing people that were in that room stand up and applaud me for being myself unapologetically - that's a moment that only comes once in a lifetime.

GROSS: Yeah, that must have been a really great moment for you and also for a lot of people watching. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She's the creator of the new Showtime series "The Chi," which is set in the South Side of Chicago. And as we've been discussing, she won an Emmy for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master Of None." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES' "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Waithe. She created the new Showtime series "The Chi," which is set on the South Side of Chicago.

I want to bring up with you the subject of pregnancy, especially, like, teen pregnancy and unplanned pregnancy because it figures into two things. It figures into "The Chi." One of the characters is a really attractive young man who has, you know, more than one girlfriend, and one former girlfriend bangs on the door one day and leaves a baby with him or, like, a 1-year-old with him, and basically said, he's yours, and it's time for you to start taking care of him. And she leaves. And he has no idea - he has to get to work. He has, like, no day care. He has - he's like, what do I do with this baby?

WAITHE: Yeah.

GROSS: And then also, in the "Master Of None" episode, the "Thanksgiving" episode in which your character comes out to her mother, the mother first starts talking about like, I don't want to see you get pregnant, so, like, hope you're wearing an - a UID, and you correct her and say, it's an IUD. So the whole idea - the mother's obviously really concerned before she realizes that you're gay - really concerned that you'll become pregnant.

WAITHE: Yup.

GROSS: So as a teenage girl, when you were that age, was it something of a relief to you to know that you would not be in the position where you would get pregnant before you were ready to?

WAITHE: Absolutely. But also, even though I knew I was gay then, there was still a lot of girls who were also gay who were trying to sex the gay away, as I like to say, because there's a lot of gay girls who know they're gay, but don't want to be. And so they're like, oh, let me try having sex with a guy and see and be sure. Maybe if I have sex with him, maybe I won't be gay anymore. There's some adults that are doing that, that are still doing it. So it wasn't as if I was protected because there were still guys. I mean, please, teenage boys will, you know, try to holla at anything. So I still had, you know, options of guys.

And I had a boyfriend in high school who ended up turning out to be gay because birds of a feather. But - and so I was really lucky because he was, like, not trying to touch me with a 10-foot pole because he, you know, wanted something else. And thank God we found each other, and we're still really cool. But I think that there was never any - you never - you were always afraid of it. You were always nervous about it. You didn't really knew what could make you pregnant, so you were afraid to kiss somebody.

But I think, you know - and there are some teenage girls, if we're being completely honest, that wanted to get pregnant. There are those that exist because there's also an element, I think, of, if everybody else is pregnant, I want to be pregnant, too. Or my family gets on my nerves; let me create my own. Let me go start my own family as a way of escaping this reality. So I think it's - it can be really complicated. And - but for me, as an artist, I never judge. I can't. I can only observe and tell the truth.

GROSS: So I have one more question for you because we're almost out of time, I regret to say. So you say you knew at the age of 7 that you wanted to write for television.

WAITHE: Yeah.

GROSS: That's pretty young to figure that out. You grew up with your mother and your grandmother. Did your mother or grandmother control the TV when you were young, and you - were your tastes shaped by what they loved on television?

WAITHE: They absolutely controlled the TV. And - but I'm very grateful that when I was that age, Thursday night must-see television happened to be "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World." And I'm always grateful for that.

And I know that Cosby's actions are ones that have really devastated I think not just the victims but I think the people that looked up to him as well. I think we feel betrayed and violated, too. But it doesn't take away the joy that that theme music - that that playful and sporadic and amazing jazz music theme music that you hear - and you know it the second you hear it.

When "The Cosby Show" - you know something beautiful and black and funny and amazing is going to happen. You know that Claire's going to walk through the door with her perfectly coiffed hair, her amazing suit and her million-dollar smile. And those kids are going to come down the stairs with a mundane problem that's going to be the A-story of what's going to be a just lovely and amazing episode of television.

You can't take that away from my childhood. You can't erase how much Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne - their love story meant to me. You can't take away the infamous Tisha Campbell episode when she admits to being HIV positive and Whoopi Goldberg is guest-starring as their professor. That stuff you can't take away from my brain. And I was just lucky that I was a kid watching it and seeing not myself - yet - in "A Different World," but I was seeing who I wanted to be. And I did see myself on "The Cosby Show." I was a Rudy, plain and simple. I was her. And I saw so much of myself and so much of what I wanted to be in those shows.

So that really is the thing that made me go, I want to be a part of whatever that world is. And it's the thing that really set me on that path. And I'm just grateful that my mom and my grandmother said, yeah, this is a show - these are shows we can all watch together. And it's the one time that my family would huddle in a room and watch something together. So they really did control the remote. And I'm grateful they did because I think it gave me a real sense of television history. And also, it gave me a real sense of, you know, what television can be and what it can do for someone.

And what television did for me was it taught me how to dream. It taught me what to dream about. And I'm grateful that I get to write that now because someone may look at a show I've written and start dreaming. And that means a lot to me.

GROSS: Lena Waithe, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WAITHE: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Lena Waithe created the new Showtime series "The Chi." Episode 2 will be shown Sunday night. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like yesterday's interview with the co-writers and co-directors of the Disney Pixar film "Coco," which won a Golden Globe for best animated film, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.