Actress, writer Lena Waithe discusses TV career, representation in the industry


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

TV writer and actress Lena Waithe speaks at an event in Ryan Auditorium Thursday. In September, Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy series writing for an episode she wrote for Netflix series “Master of None.”

Ally Mauch, Copy Chief

Actress and TV writer Lena Waithe said she took to TV and movies from a young age, and later realized that she could be a part of it.

“Watching ‘A Different World’ for sure made me realize I wanted to be a part of it, and then also watching really old TV like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘Maude’ and ‘Rhoda,’” Waithe told The Daily. “Those shows really made me think about writing something that eventually would be timeless, that would stick around for a long time.”

Thirty-three-year-old Waithe has done just that.

Waithe, who spoke at Northwestern on Thursday, starred in and wrote for the Netflix series “Master of None,” and is the creator and executive producer of the Showtime series “The Chi.”

In September, Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy series writing. She received the award for the “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None,” which follows her character’s experience coming out as gay. The episode is based on her own coming-out story.

The Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, Multicultural Filmmakers Collective, NU Women Filmmakers Alliance and Rainbow Alliance co-hosted the sold-out event in Ryan Auditorium at the Technological Institute. Communication Prof. Zina Camblin moderated the conversation.

Waithe grew up on the South Side, the setting of “The Chi,” and later moved to Evanston. She said the move from the city to the North Shore was “different,” but that she appreciated Evanston’s diversity and “felt like it was where (she) was supposed to be.”

“On the South Side, it was all African-American where I lived, and then I moved to Evanston and it was a little more diverse,” Waithe told The Daily. “That was really important for me to experience both sides. I think Evanston is a good kind of suburb where it’s a lot of different people and a lot of different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Sarah Parisien, an Evanston Township High School sophomore who attended the event, said she was first inspired by Waithe while watching her acceptance speech at the Emmys and was excited when she heard she would be speaking in Evanston.

Parisien said it “meant the world” to her to have Waithe, an alumna of ETHS, as a role model.

“Knowing that you could come out of ETHS and be something as great as she is, that just inspires me,” Parisien said. “I can do the exact same thing.”

During the Q&A portion of the event, Waithe gave advice to audience members who asked about entering the TV industry.

Communication freshman Nolan Robinson said he appreciated Waithe’s answers to the audience’s questions and that she was very “open” in telling her own story. With every answer Waithe gave, she pushed people to “be better, be the best,” he added.

Robinson said seeing actors of color on the screen and their accomplishments is important, but hearing Waithe acknowledge young people who want to work in the entertainment industry “shows (she) cares.”

“It’s one thing seeing a person on the screen and saying ‘Hey, that person looks like me and that means I can do it,’ but it’s another thing having them speak to you directly and saying ‘You can do something,’” Robinson said. “It just validates it even more.”

Waithe discussed the importance of supporting other writers of color who are trying to enter the TV industry and of increasing representation in the field, as well.

She said she often serves as a mentor for young writers.

“My hope is the more I can help these new writers of color … they then rise up in the ranks,” Waithe said. “What will happen is, little by little by little, we’ll look up and the industry will actually reflect the society which it entertains.”

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