Lena Waithe Smokes First Drafts

A conversation with The Chi creator about craft, elevating voices, and spirituality.

By
Jack Giroux

There’s a lot to discuss with Lena Waithe. The multi-talented artist’s roster of projects and ventures runs deeper than extensive. The creator of The Chi, which is returning next month, continues to produce documentaries and award-winning dramas, including last year’s A Thousand and One. On top of all that, her imprint has teamed up with the publishing house Zando, and the Rising Voices initiative continues to expand and foster artists. 

The Emmy-winning writer also features cannabis to her resume, thanks to her collaboration with Ball Family Farms. Together, a welcoming strain of weed has been produced, aptly called First Draft. It’s a nice bolt of creativity in the bud. 

The hybrid can allow the mind to wander at a nice and steady pace. If you’re an artist, smoke First Draft, which was two years in the making. With First Draft hitting shelves again, Waithe spoke with High Times about the flower, her creative process, spirituality, and, of course, the 2004 swords and sandals epic, Troy.

Throughout my research, I did not expect to learn the movie Troy inspires you.

I keep ‘em guessing. I don’t know what it is, man. I know that movie technically didn’t work, but it works for me. I like it. Brad turns in a solid performance. Orlando Bloom, young Orlando Bloom in there. Worth a revisit. 

The director’s cut is pretty good!

It’s no Gladiator, but what are you going to do? 

[Laughs] What’s inspired you lately? 

Jerrod Carmichael’s trailer for his new show, the new docuseries reality show, whatever you call it. Just a trailer, man, has already got me having such great conversations, so I’m inspired by a trailer of a show. I haven’t even seen it yet. And “16 CARRIAGES,” Beyoncé giving us country. Who would’ve thought? 

Jerrod has such a great voice. Nobody delivers lines like him. Do you think of voices when you write? 

A person’s voice is important. I think I have a bit of a voice that people recognize. It’s so funny, I would be out during the pandemic with my mask on, even though some people would say, “Oh, I can kind of recognize you with the mask on,” but if I speak or something, people would recognize me. So I’m like, oh, okay, so I should be more thoughtful of this. 

I’ve obviously got a chance to work with Angela Bassett, and she has a really great voice. Marshawn Lynch has a fantastic voice. I got to work with him as well on Westworld. I just like a distinctive voice, a voice of personality. I think Delroy Lindo has a really great voice, too. I love his voice so much. 

I remember hearing it for the first time in [Spike Lee’s] Crooklyn. Such a great movie, but yeah, that voice…

I mean, you get a lot of cool points for me mentioning Crooklyn. It’s a fantastic film, man, and I think for every little black girl, the braids, her having to get a perm, just her walking around the world with the confidence that she has, and Troy the Boy, I could relate to a lot. Being a little tomboy coming up, I really love that movie so much. 

What are you writing these days?

I’m writing a play for the first time. Wish me lots of light and luck, but it’s really cool. I’ve never done that before, but the story I want to tell lends itself to the theater and forces me to be my own exec in a way. Although I’m working with the dramaturg right now, an amazing theater director, but the dramaturg is more like your exec, helping you develop the story and make sure it lands. But it’s new for me. It is still at the beginning, it’s first draft, which is what I’m about to smoke right now, which is my strain, First Draft.

Enjoy. Is cannabis helping with the play at the moment? 

I like to smoke and then a little bit later write; I’m not smoking and writing at the same time. Today I’m not writing anything, but if that morning I loosen up or clear out the schedule for the day, I mean, people don’t realize how much clearing of the schedule one has to do to really write. You can’t really go anywhere and do anything or hang out. There’s sort of this misconception of you getting to have a life. Although people may say, “Well, you seem to have a life. You seem to be doing your thing.” But I really do have to carve out so many days to make sure I get it done. 

You’re kind of in your own world a lot of the time, right? Does having a few gigs at a time help keep the process exciting? 

I think that’s what keeps it exciting for me because otherwise it becomes a job. It becomes a chore and look, sometimes it’s like, fuck, my whole Sunday I got to sit down and work on this rewrite of this episode of The Chi. It has to be turned in by Monday for the crew. 

When I’m in a scene trying to figure it out and it’s fun, that’s my thing, always scene by scene by scene. That’s how I get through everything. It’s like, what is happening in this scene? What is the conflict in this scene and what are we learning? How are these characters being more defined by this conversation? And then I’m learning and growing and I’m getting excited about, oh wow, okay, that’s a cool place to leave it or that’s an interesting conversation for them to have. To me, that’s part of the fun. 

Does cannabis ever help answer some of those questions? 

Sometimes. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s a more enjoyable experience because it’s tough trying to figure out, okay, what is happening? Ultimately, it’s really more about me trying to be honest with the character, what would happen, what could happen, what’s surprising, what’s real. What’s the audience thinking right now? Okay, let me give that to one of the characters so they can say that out loud. They can just acknowledge the pink elephant in the room and then have the character that’s doing the weird thing that the audience doesn’t understand say why they’re doing it. 

You’ve said many times you never want to judge your characters. That’s clearly very important to you. When did you start approaching your stories with that at the forefront of mind?

Definitely over the course of making The Chi, which has been over six years. I think the truth is you can’t write heroes and villains; it’s been a process to understand that there’s no such thing. It’s interesting, that bleeds into life and you realize everybody starts somewhere. No one is inherently bad; it’s just like it really is. 

There are fairy tales, but even in these Disney movies or kid movies, even the villains are humanized. In A Nightmare Before Christmas, the hero is the antagonist in a way. I think that’s why that movie works so well. Jack is the king of Halloween, which means he’s not meant to be the king of Christmas. He has to realize, oh, that’s not my destiny. 

I think that’s what keeps the art around is when there’s no really bad guy. It is that everybody’s complex and everybody has a different way about going about things. When you have to think about that all the time when you’re writing, it definitely gives you a whole new outlook on the world. 

Along the journey of finding your voice, what were some major lessons from mistakes?

I think trying to sound like other writers and trying to always compare. It’s like musicians listening to great musicians before them. The tricky thing is you can start to sound like what you listen to all the time. I really had to figure out my own rhythms. I don’t think it really happened until The Chi and writing the pilot for Twenties, but I wrote the pilot for Twenties before I wrote the pilot for The Chi. The Chi just got made first, but I would then go back and tweak Twenties.

I think if you look at both pilots, they’re both reflections of my voice, but it’s really to me, those two scripts. And then I guess someone could also add Queen and Slim or the Thanksgiving episode [of Master of None]. Those four pieces of work I think really sum up how I try to find my own rhythm and what my rhythms are and things that I say.

You’ll find things repeat themselves, too. “Touché” is a thing I like. Touché, touché, it’s sort of a peace offering. It’s saying, okay, fair. Maybe that’s something from deep down. God and religion or some sort of spiritual connection, it is very much of the work. And so, the more you write, the more you find out about yourself in a way.

With Rising Voices, how do you want to help guide and mentor other artists? 

What I really want them to know is that it’s not about the reaction to the work, but more about what the work reveals about them. That is really the goal. Sometimes we get so caught up in the conversation of the work that it causes us to forget to really see what we have to say. The thing is, what do you have to say? You don’t have to really say anything, necessarily important or sad or whatever, but to me, it’s more about what is your voice? What is the sound of your voice on the page? What is your personality on the page? It’s a vulnerable thing. It’s very vulnerable to be really vulnerable, to be a writer, because you’re revealing pieces of yourself.

You got your production company, of course, and you’re working with a publishing house. Which artists are you excited about collaborating with at the moment? 

Oh man, there are a ton. I’ll talk about someone who I just sort of wrapped up award season with, which was A.V. Rockwell. We just did A Thousand and One together, which had a wonderful debut at Sundance Film Festival, and she won a grand jury prize, and she won a Gotham Award for first-time filmmaker. We won a first feature award at Film Independent. So, we’ve had a really lovely run with this movie, and I think she’s a fantastic filmmaker, a fantastic writer. She is doing the thing.

Oh, you know what, I’ll mention a dear friend of mine, Etienne Maurice. We talked this morning about doing a documentary. I can’t say what it’s about yet, but I’m excited to venture into the documentary space, and I’ve known him for a very long time. He happens to be the son of Sheryl Lee Ralph, but he’s a filmmaker in his own right, and he also has his own yoga studio called WalkGood. He’s just amazing. I’ve known him for a super long time, so I’m super excited to be working with him.

You do yoga?

I do. I do it with him. He’s my guy. He comes over here and we do it, and I know if he were here, he would say, “We got to increase our sessions,” but we get it in pretty often.

What do you get out of yoga? 

I think it’s spiritual.

Where did you get your spirituality from?

Well, I was raised to go to church on Sundays as often as one can get there. I went to a church that was headed up by a black woman, Rev Johnnie Coleman, on the south side of Chicago. The church is called Christ Universal Temple. I believe it’s still standing; it’s technically kind of a megachurch. I know she was a leader in that space because not too many black women were leading megachurches, especially when I was a kid. She talked about manifestation and prosperity and just confidence, and so in a way, she was a part of raising me in that church on Sundays.

Yes, it’s Christianity, but not necessarily preaching. It was preaching something that was really about looking at yourself, being determined, and believing that there is a power greater than you. As I get older, even though I may not be going to church every Sunday, I still have that ideology pumping through my veins, but also a spirituality in terms of being connected to the universe, all that other good stuff. So, it’s a mix.

Is spirituality something you have to work at?

You do. You have to commit to it. You have to spend the time and be in dialogue with people who are spiritual folks, as well. It’s something that doesn’t come easy. I think it’s something you have to get to always be in constant communication with that side of yourself.

Let’s talk more about your strain, first draft. Obvious question, but how’d you decide on the name?

I knew I wanted to have a double meaning, but I was just trying to think, what is that? It’s funny because I say first draft a lot in reference to the side of the business, everything starts with that. It’s all right, let’s get a first draft going. Let’s knock out the first draft. First drafts are always tricky because it is not there yet, but it’s the seed of something that you hope you’ll noodle at for a while and make it good. 

This strain is my first attempt at a strain. It is representative of planting a seed and me noodling at this, that’s what I’m saying. We may do second draft, third draft, fourth draft. We might do a continuation where it’s me trying to not perfect a strain, but rather, here’s a new take on it. It’s all about evolving. This is where it begins, but who knows where this will end?

For your first draft, what were some flavors and sensations you wanted? 

Well, Chris Ball, there was a fun week where he gave us a bunch of different weeds and strains and stuff to try. Basically, that’s what we were going to do is figure out which ones I liked the most and combine those. I wanted it to be sort of fruity. It is technically a hybrid, but it’s obviously for the head and to spark creativity. 

I smoke it myself and yes, for this interview, but if we weren’t talking, I’d probably smoke it right now. I just shared it with my guy, Vic Mensa, who was over here the other day. I love to share it and for people to try it out and see if they dig it. Weed is meant to be shared, and different strains are meant to be talked about.

For me, look, I’m not an indica person. I know a lot of guys who smoke indica during the day and I’m just like, I don’t know how these cats do it. Indica takes a toll on me, man. I’ll be done. During the day, if I’m working and chatting and this and that, I like a head high. 

For some people, sativa can be a little bit like caffeine. I don’t drink coffee, I don’t drink alcohol. And so, for me, it really is about an experience of, okay, something that sparks your mind, but also relaxes your body. The more I smoke it, the more I enjoy it because it’s like your brain is going, but you’re calm. 

Excellent. Looking ahead, what do you want to accomplish for the rest of the year? 

That’s a big question. The business is still recalibrating and people are still trying to figure things out. Honestly, for me, I want to have a really great second half of season six with The Chi. I’m really excited for that to come out. May 10th. I can’t wait for people to see the rest of the season. I hope everybody tunes in for those eight episodes. We want to have a great second half of that season. 

Weed is a big part of it. We have a character loosely based on Chris Ball in the show, named Cairo (Brian Keys), who’s teaching two characters, Tiff (Hannaha Hall) and Rob (Iman Shumpert), how to grow. Obviously, this is Chicago where weed is legal, but you have to have permits for it and things like that. We get into those politics and how sometimes people can maybe rush a permit so they can hurry up and sell. Not that it happens in Chicago, I’m just saying on our TV show. 

I want to finish the play. I want to finish the play and get into that theater space. I really want to stretch around and hopefully make a few sales, try to get a movie or two financed and hopefully get another show up, maybe another drama or something. So, people can stay tuned. I’m working away truly and staying creative. We continue shooting our shots. 

Jack Giroux

Jack Giroux is an interviewer for High Times Magazine. Since High School, he's been interviewing a wide range of artists for film blogs and other outlets. He likes to know what makes an artist and their work tick.

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