After a brief connection to the show during season one, executive producer and showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis has come aboard The Chi full time for the new season. We chatted about the show’s strong connection to the struggles of the black community in Chicago, as well as the remarkable culture of the city as well. More than anything we discussed the direction of the new season which will debut on Showtime on April 7.
Tell me about how you came to The Chi.
I was on the show briefly before there was a pick up. I was a part of helping the showrunner retool the show – they were still trying to find it. I was not a part of season one once the show got picked up. Because of my background working in drama (Hannibal, Empire), Lena (Waithe) wanted me to come in and define the show more and build upon what was there in season one. I loved the characters and I love Chicago. I used to live in Chicago for five years – I went to grad school there. So, I decided to come onboard and man the ship. What attracted me more than anything is these characters and tell these stories about a community that I was once a part of.
When The Chi debuted, it was often compared to The Wire. But I actually think it has more in common with another David Simon show, Treme. The Chi makes an effort to celebrate the culture of its city much like Treme does, and is less dark and crime-focused as The Wire. How conscious was the decision to marry the more difficult aspects of inner city Chicago with moments of joy?
We definitely made a conscious effort to balance the joy and pain of life in a community like this. I once heard someone say that people “like black people’s rhythm, but not our blues.” We got some rhythm and we got some blues. The challenge is trying to disburse that properly throughout the show. That’s why the first episode of season two starts out so aspirational with Brandon trying to rebuild his life after losing his brother. We want to stay true to the world and keep the grit, but also have some lightness and some fun.
While The Chi is definitely an ensemble piece, I’ve always felt that Brandon (played by Jason Mitchell) is the center of the show. Would you agree with that, and if so, does The Chi continue in that direction for this season?
We do continue with that. Brandon is going after his dream of being a chef. You will see him stumble and make some interesting choices and alliances. Which I think will be very relatable (to the audience). He is the emotional center of the show. This year I think we lean into that a little more. We fill our his world and go on a journey with him. It’s not only about the loss of his brother, but about trying to make a better life for himself.
Mitchell is such a wonderful actor. I’m sure you feel fortunate to have him and such an excellent cast overall.
He and our whole cast are great. They are just top-tier actors. We are so lucky.
Steven Williams was so great as the old school gangster, Quentin, last year. With him not returning to the show, will there be a new character representing “the heavy” in the community?
We have a new gangster on the scene. His name is “Douda”, played by a magnificent actor, Curtiss Cook. In crafting this character, we talked a lot about gang culture in Chicago and Larry Hoover (founder of the Chicago street gang the Gangster Disciples, Hoover is currently serving six life sentences at a supermax prison in Colorado) and his influence in Chicago in particular. We also talked about presenting a different image of what a gangster is. We went away from the saggy pants and the white Ts and thought about a person who could be your neighbor, a businessman, friends with your local politician. We do something different this year with Douda. He will have that frightening quality that Steven Williams had, but a slicker version of it. That’s probably the most I can say without giving too much away (laughs).
One of the things The Chi does particularly well is how the black community is caught between the criminal element that comes from being stuck in a disadvantaged economic situation and the Chicago police force, which the community also has a fraught relationship with. In what ways can we expect those tensions to play out this year?
One, we introduce a new female police officer who will offer an interesting dynamic to the mix. We also get into Detective Cruz’s (Armando Riesco) backstory and his relationship with Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). What his connection is to Ronnie and why it feels so earnest. I think we understood part of the nature of their relationship last year, but we dig deeper and peel back (exactly) why that is. We’ll explore Detective Cruz’s relationship with the black community as a cop and start to explain who he is a little better.
I found Ronnie’s story last year to be perhaps the most affecting. That of a brokenhearted father who kills the wrong boy in a mistaken act of revenge. Can you tell us a little about what is in store for him this year?
He’s on a journey of redemption. We explore what lead him to that fateful decision. I think we look back with Ronnie and we open up his relationship with his (deceased) son Jason, that I think is really touching. I think you’ll understand him better this season. Last season he was kind of defined by what he did.
I really enjoyed the multi-generational approach to the storylines last year. Particularly with the younger kids and Kevin’s cautious foray into romance. Can you talk about what we might expect from Kevin this season?
One thing I really wanted to deal with for Kevin was his trauma from the events of last season. This young boy has seen someone get killed and he has shot someone himself. This is not something you brush past. We wanted to explore the idea of black boy fragility. We didn’t want it to be too on the nose though – making it more sub-conscious and how a middle-school kid would deal with it. We will see Kevin make some bad choices and some really good choices. We also get to see the boys be boys more this year. We will see them in school a lot. That was one thing I wanted more of last year.
I live just 90 minutes from Chicago myself. I’ve driven down many of the streets shown on The Chi. Watching the show, authenticity is palpable. How do you keep that going?
This season we made sure we shot on the south side of Chicago. We hit a lot of landmarks in the first episode and throughout the season. That was kind of hard to do. Logistically and budget-wise it was a bit of a challenge. I was adamant that we had to show the character of the city and be amongst the people, to make the show as reflective of the people we were portraying as possible. I think we did that and I think people will appreciate it. And see it and feel it. Hopefully no one will say again “They don’t shoot on the south side!”, because we did. People would drive by while we were shooting and shout out “Why aren’t you shooting on the south side?!” And I’d say “We can’t today!” (Laughs).
Last season did a great job of showcasing current events in Chicago. In what ways does the show do that this season?
We explore gentrification. We also give a nod to R. Kelly. And not a good nod. I wouldn’t say it was ripped from the headlines – we were ahead of it (during shooting). I used to be a big fan and I wanted to say something about his relationships with young black girls.
What else can we expect from The Chi this year?
We gave a bigger presence to the women this season. We get to see the women’s lives outside of the men’s this year. We get to see Jerrika and Jada and the two moms. I’m really proud of that. I like to say last year the women were in black and white and this year we put them in color.