Upping the Authenticity
Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis strives to humanize the South Side in the second season of Showtime’s gritty drama The Chi.
Season one of The Chi, Showtime’s look at the ups and downs of living in one of Chicago’s most notorious neighborhoods, fared well by television standards.
According to Showtime, the show averaged 4.5 million weekly viewers and was one of the network’s most successful new series. Based on the lives of four male characters whose lives intermingle, the show tackled issues such as black manhood, fatherhood, incarceration, and the role of community.
Creator Lena Waithe, however, felt the show lacked a certain authenticity in the first season. Given more control over the direction of the second season, Waithe reached out to showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis to bring her vision of the South Side to life.
Floyd Davis, who graduated from Chicago’s Columbia College and lived in the South Side herself, is known for writing and producing on shows such as Private Practice, Falling Skies, Empire, and Hannibal, as well as for championing the causes of diversity and gender parity in Hollywood.
Having written episode three in season one of the show, she immediately jumped in and created a more daring vision for season two, which is produced and filmed entirely in Chicago.
When you took over as showrunner on The Chi, one of your big focuses was developing the female characters.
Yes, I think that was one of the big criticisms of the show. Sometimes criticism is valid, and sometimes it’s not. In this case, I think it was valid. I like to say that in season one, the women were in black and white, and in season two, I put them in color.
I wanted to give them a life outside of the men they are attached to and not make them appendages, but make them have their own storylines and their own wants and desires and obstacles.
For example, I wanted to peel back the layers of with Jerrika [Tiffany Boone] and Emmett’s mom Jada [Yolanda Ross], and even Kevin’s two moms. Giving them more of a presence this year was important to me. We created arcs for those characters and really fleshed out their characters and were dogmatic about it.
So I think this year it will feel more satisfying, so people will feel they can identify with the women.
Creating a stronger female presence on the show seems important to you, not just for the characters on the show, but in actually creating the show, as well.
Yes, absolutely. Because I’m a black woman, I’m all about being inclusive. For me it is kind of second nature - I just do it. I see marginalized communities, and I know what that feels like, and automatically I have an eye towards it. I’m also just naturally curious, so I don’t want same kinds of people on a staff. I want diversity of thought.
So yes, on this season, seven out of the 10 directors on the show were women. And what’s interesting is that we have a lot of strong male characters on the show, and usually you have male directors telling the stories. But on this show we have female directors telling these males’ stories. It’s through the eyes of women that, this season, we visually told the stories.
I think that’s different than a lot of shows, because traditionally directing is kind of a male-dominated field, but we’re making inroads as women, and hopefully this will chip away at it a little bit.
Also, a lot of my department heads were women. Location was headed by a woman … Wardrobe was headed by a woman … I had a director who was a gay Asian woman from Australia. I just had a lot of women in key positions, to make sure that women had a key presence. I wanted to make sure we were consistent on screen and behind the scenes as well.
You were also very hands-on with the hair and makeup and wardrobes on the show, trying to keep them authentic. Why was that so important to you?
Because I’m a girl! I’m taking care of the women … you know what I mean? I wanted the women to look like how I’ve seen women. I used to live on the South Side. It was like a second home to me, and I still have friends who live on the South Side, and they’re fabulous.
I didn’t want to make it like every episode they had to be glamorous or overdone, but I wanted to make an effort to bring in women of color and make sure we took care of their hair, makeup, and wardrobe. I was a stickler about it.
You also really wanted to focus on the authenticity of the South Side itself, and hired people who were familiar with the neighborhood to work on the show… For example, you hired a South Side police officer as a writer?
Yeah! J. David Shanks, who is a South Sider and a former cop who patrolled the South Side … he just brought a plethora of experiences to the table. He’s also a father, and a husband, and so I thought it was important to add that specificity to the show. He also just knew cool things like, “Hey we want to do a summer episode and shoot at a pool in the South Side - when it’s hot, where do people go?” He was fantastic.
You also hired directors and production staff from Chicago, so did that help in keeping things authentic?
Absolutely! I hired two Chicago native directors. One was Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who was an actress who is now a really talented director. She’s from the South Side. And then there was Carl Seaton. Carl and I actually went to Columbia College together, and he just knows the South Side like the back of his hand.
Also, the first thing I did was call Columbia and say, “Hey, send me all your resumes. We want diverse interns, and diverse people on the show, and we want to give young people a chance.”
So we had about eight Columbia College grads working on the show in the production office and on set itself. It was important, just to add that flavor, and that specificity, and to have people who know what South Side Chicago is, versus what you see on television, you know?
The show was produced entirely in Chicago, and you shot a lot of scenes on location in the South Side even though it was sometimes inconvenient.
It was less convenient sometimes, but I was very insistent that that had to be the case. When you want to add that extra layer of authenticity … I wanted people from the South Side to be able to look at it and feel like, “Oh, I know where that is!” and not feel like it was some bootleg version of the South Side. We were in the community. We were with the people. And that was really important.
Another thing is, there are a lot of “Chicago-isms” this season, which is fun. It’s like when I moved to LA, and there was a debate between, “Is it pop, or is it soda?” And I call it pop, so other people were like, “What are you talking about?” Like, house music is big in Chicago, and stepping is a big cultural thing. So we just give more of a nod to cool stuff like that.
Overall, what would you say is the focus of this season? What are you trying to portray to people who may not be familiar with the South Side, and what it’s about?
I think we’re just trying to go behind the headlines and humanize these people. This is a slice-of-life, neighborhood drama.
In television today, I think a new era of storytelling of black life is being ushered in, but we still have more work to do. And I think part of that work is just humanizing people’s journeys in a way that everybody can relate to. But I think it starts with the specificity.
Everyone thinks they know what the South Side of Chicago is. But not many people have lived on the South Side, like me, and like some of the writers and staff. So I think we’re telling people, “This is how it really is. It’s not all gun violence. It’s not all bad. These people have struggles just like you and I. They have victories and triumphs, just like you and I.”
We’re showing the balance between the joy and the pain. And that was my goal, and I think that’s what we did this season.
The second season of The Chi airs on Showtime at 10:00pm.