Growing up on the south side, writer and actress Lena Waithe, now 32, looked to four pillars of television: The Cosby Show, Martin, Living Single, and A Different World: to this day her Twitter handle, @HillmanGrad, is homage to the fictional college attended by Denise Huxtable, Whitley Gilbert, and Dwayne Wayne.
"Look, regardless of what's going on right now with the man, if you were a black kid in the 80s, you were watching The Cosby Show," Waithe says. "There's something about that show that's magical, that's still timeless, and it was revolutionary at the time. There were kids on that show that would talk to their parents the way I did, that dressed the way I did, that did their homework the way I did, that caused trouble the way I sometimes did."
After seeing herself in these characters, Waithe decided when she was still very young that she would seek a career in television writing. She studied the craft at Columbia College Chicago, and then, after she graduated in 2006, moved to LA where she wrote for Bones, produced the film Dear White People, and created a pilot of her own with fellow Chicagoan Common. In 2015 Waithe moved to the front of the camera to speak to a new generation of young, black television watchers as Denise, Aziz Ansari's wry, gay BFF on the Netflix comedy Master of None.
"I get a lot of people hitting me up on Twitter and Instagram and they message me telling me, 'Hey, I'm queer and brown and see myself in you and that character,'" Waithe says. "It means a lot to me. I didn't realize how revolutionary the character was."
Denise was originally supposed to be a straight, white woman. But after Waithe met with Ansari and cocreator Alan Yang, they decided to switch things up and base the character on her, in keeping with the show's vision of portraying diverse points of view. Season two (premiering in April 2017) will focus even more on Denise's world, shedding light on the LGBT community in a way that Waithe says she hasn't yet seen in television.
But she's not going to stop at sharing her personal experiences onscreen as an actress. The still-unnamed pilot she created with Common—it was commissioned by Showtime, and they’re still in talks with the network—is based on Waithe's experiences growing up as a young black person in Chicago.
"What we're dealing with is what it's like to be in a city riddled with violence and how it affects you and how you walk the world," Waithe says. "Even though they don't come from a community that looks like yours, their lives are just as valid. My hope is that people can see the empathy and the humanity in these stories and not just another number." v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the year Waithe graduated from Columbia College, her character on Master of None, and the status of her pilot.