Since about 2012, Chicago has enjoyed an increased number of eyes on it as the city and those within it have found their stories told the country and world-over. While many of those projects seek to expose or take advantage, SHowtime’s The Chi, written by hometown native Lena Waithe cuts through the manufactured image of the city, showing an honest picture of the ‘Go and using those that came up here to do so. For Chicago native Kiara Lanier, exposed to the city’s varied experiences the show offered an opportunity appropriately on her doorstep.
In recent years Chicago has found its way onto screens across the country as more and more shows seek to utilize the city as a backdrop for their stories. The execution of those has been met with mixed reviews. However, Waithe’s explanation of the realities of life lived in her native south side have been praised as a true-to-life representation, a breath of fresh air.
Rather than glamorize the violent headlines that frequent the city’s news, Waithe’s project Astrid looks at the pain loss causes on those near and the symptoms of retaliation and misunderstanding that so often cause it. Instead of brushing over complex relationships and complicated understandings the way films like Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” did, The Chi drives headlong into the interpersonal narratives that are often left out of the news reports.
The show, like the Renaissance that preceded it, is a uniting force for a city in desperate need of understanding across established lines. In much the same way that musicians moving beyond previously enforced or understood boundaries to create art did much to connect the city more than before, The Chi is helping to add a sense of empathy to everything.
For Lanier, who recently migrated west to Los Angeles to pursue her music and acting careers, her inclusion as a singer at a funeral in the show’s lead episode marks an opportunity she couldn’t have imagined beforehand. It also has made the transition to California easier.
“It’s actually perfect timing that I put a project out and I did both this show and Empire and was able to come out to L.A. with actual credits. It just helped me to open the door and be able to stand on my own here and not just for myself and my career, but also just to realize how important it is to be able to write your own story in your life.”
It’s a hometown affair the whole way through. In addition to Waithe, the cast also boasts Chicagoans,Tosin Morohunfola, Julian Parker, & Michael Epps, among others. The soundtrack meanwhile is full of familiar names including the Bennett brothers in Chance and Taylor, NoName and Alex Wiley, among others. In addition to performing and appearing in the pilot, Lanier found out recently that one of her singles, “Only One” and “Body Was Made For Mine” from her album Tongues & Teaspoons would be featured on a later episode.
“Its nice that its a story written by a Chicagoan, a ton of people from Chicago are a part of it and its just good, it’s authentic. I really love the kids characters, they’re talking like you would if you were any little kid from around the way. Its just nice to be a part of something thats on a national scale. The billboards for The Chi is everywhere around L.A.”
To be sure, Lanier is plenty comfortable in front of cameras and crowds and first made a name for herself with a stint on American Idol in 2013 at the age of 20. Since then, she’s appeared in an episode of Empire and released her debut project, Tongues & Teaspoons after a couple years navigating her hometown’s arts and music scenes. The innate ability that kept her in-demand locally and beyond was on display in The Chi’s pilot when she played the part of a gospel singer performing the classic number, “Take My Hand Precious Lord” during a funeral service for a young character gunned down. Having realized her talent across several mediums all across the city, the moment was an appropriate one that fit her perfectly, delivering a memorable performance that boldly underlined one of the show’s most heart-wrenching scenes to date.
Ever the performer, she’s found a way into television through her soulful vocals, but has plans to showcase her full range sometime soon. More than anything though, Lanier is appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of a production that is casting an appropriate light on Chicago.
“I’m really proud of the show,” said Lanier. “Unbiased, the writing is really good. I’m proud of the show period and I’m proud to be a part of it. The concept is awesome, the writing is awesome and it really brings things full circle for me and all the things I’ve been involved in and all the people I’ve been intermingling with here in L.A. and Hollywood, just black excellence.”
Catch The Chi Sundays on Showtime.