Who Is Lena Waithe?
Born in 1984 in Chicago, Lena Waithe knew from a very young age she wanted to write for television. After working her way up in the industry, Waithe became a writer for Fox and Nickelodeon and also produced a variety of web series and short films. However, she's most famous for her writing and acting contributions to Aziz Ansari's Master of None on Netflix. It was her penned episode "Thanksgiving" on the series that earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017, making her the first black female ever to have won the award. Most recently, Waithe is the creator behind the black television drama, The Chi, which airs on Showtime and also stars in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One (2018).
In 2017 Waithe got engaged to Alana Mayo, whom she had been dating for three years. Mayo is a content executive for Outlier Society Productions, a media company owned by actor Michael B. Jordan.
Despite being penniless and having no connections, Waithe was determined to make it as a TV writer when she moved to Hollywood in 2006.
She started out assisting Love and Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood and later worked as a production assistant for director Ava DuVernay.
Her hustling eventually paid off: She became a TV writer for Fox's crime procedural Bones and Nickelodeon's sitcom How to Rock. Busy producing and writing for both web series (Hello Cupid) and short films (Save Me), Waithe built herself a solid footing in the industry.
'Master of None'
Starting in 2014, she became a producer for Netflix's Dear White People, but the following year made a bigger splash with mainstream audiences on Aziz Ansari's Master of None, which also streams on Netflix. In the series, Waithe not only contributes as a writer, but she also has a supporting role as Denise, who is the lesbian friend of Ansari's character Dev. Interestingly enough, Waithe's character was originally written as a young, heterosexual white woman who was destined to become one of Dev's love interests, but in the end, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang changed the character to better represent Waithe.
It was Waithe's penned episode "Thanksgiving," which depicts some of her real-life experiences coming out to her family, that earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017. The win was momentous, as she was the first black woman to have received the award.
Her Emmy speech left a lasting impression and was a source of pride, especially for women of color and the gay community:
“I love you all and last but certainly not least my LGBTQIA family,” Waithe said in her final remarks. “I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it."
With Ansari standing next to her, she added: “... thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”
Waithe's win felt like a turning point, especially with the industry's recent heightened awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion in storytelling. However, Waithe believes there's much more work to be done and is a staunch advocate in bringing new voices into the fold.
Never one for being complacent, Waithe has been busy developing new projects. She collaborated with Showtime for her latest series, The Chi, which premiered in January 2018 and was picked up for a second season. The series pulls from some of her personal experiences growing up in the South Side of Chicago and is produced by Common.
Still, despite Waithe's accomplishments as a minority writer, she asserts there are still hurdles to navigate.
“The hardest thing about being a black writer in this town is having to pitch your black story to white execs,” she told Vanity Fair in 2018. “Also, most of the time when we go into rooms to pitch, there’s one token black executive that sometimes can be a friend and sometimes can be a foe. I wonder if they think it makes me more comfortable, if that makes me think that they’re a woke network or studio because they’ve got that one black exec. It feels patronizing. I’m not against a black exec. I want there to be more of them.”
Still, Waithe keeps breaking barriers and Hollywood keeps calling. In March 2018 she took to the big screen in Steven Spielberg's sci-fi adventure Ready Player One. She's also busy working on another TV project called Twenties, which TBS has expressed interest in developing, and is also eyeing film projects with Sight Unseen Pictures.
Lena Waithe was born on May 17, 1984 in Chicago. A toddler when her parents divorced (her father died in her early teens), Waithe was raised with her sister as Jehovah's Witnesses on Chicago's South Side by her mother Ethel and her grandmother.
Trying to keep Waithe safe and inspired by her passion for television, mother and grandmother allowed the curious young girl to watch endless episodes of The Cosby Show, A Different World, Moesha and re-runs of The Jeffersons and Good Times, among other black family shows. It was her hours of being glued to the small screen that gave Waithe a strong sense of story, dialogue and the craft of writing.
Waithe attended Columbia College Chicago, graduating with a Cinema and Television Arts degree in 2006.
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