Emmy winner talks about finding her niche

Fast Company

"There’s no easy part of coming out.”

Lena Waithe knows. Her own coming-out story became fodder for a hilarious and heart-wrenching episode of Netflix’s “Master of None.” It also won the 33-year-old her industry’s highest professional honor, and a place in history as the first black woman to win an Emmy award for comedy writing. In fact, Waithe was the first black woman ever to be nominated in that category.

And it’s all thanks to a workplace that not only accepted her for who she is, but also encouraged her to tell a deeply personal story on screen.

If there are any co-workers more welcoming of their gay colleagues than the team behind “Master of None,” you’d be hard-pressed to find them. Not only did they cast Waithe as Denise — a character originally conceived as a straight woman and possible romantic interest for star Aziz Ansari’s character — but they completely remade the role in Waithe’s image.

On the suggestion of casting director Allison Jones, Waithe went in to read with Ansari, and things just clicked.

“We had sort of an instant chemistry,” Waithe says. “To their credit, they went back and rewrote the episodes and really tailored her to me.”

It was also Ansari, along with the show’s co-creator Alan Yang, who suggested that Waithe co-write what would become one of the show’s most acclaimed episodes, “Thanksgiving,” which was based on Waithe’s real-life experiences in adolescence and young adulthood, growing up in a household where inflexible personalities loomed large, and awareness of LGBTQ issues was in short supply.

“It’s a thinly veiled version,” Waithe says. “It’s as close to what really happened as you can get.”

The Emmy-winning episode takes place over a series of Thanksgiving days, spanning a period from 1995 to 2017, and follows Denise’s evolution as she crushes on Jennifer Aniston, learns to become comfortable with her sexuality and ultimately makes the difficult decision to come out to her mother.

Although Waithe considers herself more of a writer than an actor — her writing credits include Fox’s “Bones” and Nickelodeon’s “How to Rock” —she hadn’t written an episode of “Master of None” before that point.

“I’m an actor for hire on that show, and that’s how I like it,” she says. But because the story Ansari and Yang had in mind so closely mirrored her own life, they thought she should be the one to write it. Waithe was filming a project in London at the time, so Ansari joined her there in a hotel room to work on the script.

“We knocked it out in, like, three days,” she says.

Waithe speaks, and writes, of coming out as a process, not as a single event that ends with the words, “I’m gay.”

“The reason why I think people connect to the episode so much is because we don’t act as if coming out is the main event. It’s just a part of it,” she says. “It’s a journey with your family, and your friends and with yourself.”

In the “Thanksgiving” episode, Denise’s mom, Catherine, goes through multiple, sometimes painful, stages of accepting her daughter’s sexuality. At first, she wonders if she failed as a parent.

Years later, she begrudgingly tolerates the first girlfriend Denise brings home to dinner, only to appreciate her a lot more in retrospect, after meeting another girlfriend the following year — a flaky Instagram addict.

But it’s during the scene when Denise, at home from college in 2006, comes out to her mother that we learn what fuels Catherine’s resistance: She’s terrified that being gay will be a roadblock in her daughter’s life.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Waithe says she watched a lot of TV as a kid. She credits her success with the early training she received at Columbia College Chicago, where she studied cinema and TV arts.

Audiences will learn more about how Waithe’s hometown inspired her work in January with the premiere of “The Chi,” a new Showtime original series about an interconnected group of working-class African-Americans on Chicago’s South Side. Waithe wrote, produced and stars in the hourlong drama.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the city and what it means to be a black person in 2017,” Waithe said, speaking recently at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York. “What we want to do is show people that these are real human beings who are also living their lives day to day — and they have dreams, and they have hopes, and they love.”

At the event, Waithe explained how she sees her mission as an artist in an increasingly polarized country, recounting a moving story about the interplay between race, sexuality, family and society:

“My mother was born into a segregated America. How crazy is that? My mom. It’s one generation away. ... And a story my grandmother told me, which I think is important, she said to me one day, she was driving across the country, and she was pregnant with my mom. And she stopped at the gas station to pee, as pregnant women are wont to do. And the guy said, ‘We don’t have a colored bathroom here. So unfortunately, you have to keep driving until you find an establishment that does.’ So she, her pregnant self, got back in her car and kept going.

“My journey, then, making it to the Emmy stage, where a roomful of people who don’t look like me rose to their feet to applaud something that I had done. ... My mother watched it from the South Side of Chicago in her living room ... and I think at that moment, she realized that all of those journeys have sort of come together, and I’m sort of a completion of that circle. ... I think that says a lot about where we are as a society.”

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