Life has never been easy in “The Chi.”
The Showtime drama about a bustling Black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago is filled with characters trying to realize their dreams, keenly aware of the numerous obstacles — economic hardship, police corruption, violence — that might stand in their way.
It’s not only grown-ups trying to do their best; the kids of “The Chi” also are facing challenges. In the pilot episode, which premiered in 2018, a posse of three boys debate about auditioning for a student production of “The Wiz” and deal awkwardly with girls. By the end of the episode, one witnesses a murder and fears for his life when the shooter spots him.
Having been compared at times to HBO’s “The Wire” for its gritty depiction of Black life, “The Chi,” created by Emmy winner Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), has become one of the premium network’s flagship dramas, attracting a solid viewership captivated by its large ensemble of characters, whose lives are all intertwined to varying degrees.
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But as the series moves into its fifth season, which began last month, the youngsters who started as supporting characters have moved closer to center stage, with the drama tracing their growth from boys to men.
The comradeship among Kevin Williams (Alex Hibbert), Jake Taylor (Michael Epps) and Stanley “Papa” Jackson (Shamon Brown Jr. ) has become a key element of the series, turning the young actors into fan favorites. And the interaction between the characters, as well as their individual story arcs, has given audiences a distinct perspective on young Black men coming of age in a difficult environment.
“People come up and tell us we steal the show,” said Epps. “They said they watch it only for us.” Added Brown: “You’ve seen us grow and evolve, and it’s been eye-opening for adults to see what we’ve had to go through.” Hibbert chimed in: “We’re young, but we go through a lot. There’s bullying, there’s mental health. Adults will tell me that they relate to our characters the most, because they used to be kids and they have experienced what we’re going through, all the heartbreak and awkwardness.”
As they hung out at Showtime’s West Hollywood headquarters recently while in Los Angeles to attend the BET Awards, the trio displayed the warm, teasing chemistry evident onscreen. They pointed out that their bond comes easy, and that they are friends offscreen as well as on the show.
Said Hibbert: “We just fell into it. Even if there’s an argument, we always come back together. We’re always one phone call away from each other and always there to support each other.”
Hibbert and Brown were both 12 when they started on the show, and are now 17. Epps, 11 at the launch, is now 16.
Their characters are decidedly different. Kevin, who shows more academic potential than his pals and likes to flirt, lives with his mother, Nina, her wife, Dre, and his sister, Keisha. The athletic Jake, who stands out with his long braids and thin build, is in danger of being influenced by criminals in his family. Papa, whose father is a church leader, loves to eat, joke around and give his buddies unsolicited advice.
Initially, the three were scheduled to appear in only a limited number of episodes during the first season, which focused primarily on a number of older characters, including Brandon Johnson (Jason Mitchell), an aspiring cook; Emmett Washington (Jacob Latimore), a hustling young father with a complicated love life; and Ronnie Davis (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an alcoholic war veteran.
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The multilayered narrative is launched in the pilot when a young man is murdered in the streets. Brandon’s younger half-brother, Coogie (Jahking Guillory), is mistakenly suspected as the killer, and is targeted by Ronnie, the victim’s “father figure.” Ronnie tracks down Coogie and shoots him in an encounter that is witnessed by Kevin. When Ronnie spots Kevin, the young boy fears for his life and tells Brandon, who vows revenge.
Hibbert, who had a featured role in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” said he did not think his character would continue beyond the first season. Unlike Epps and Brown, he does not live in Chicago but in Miami.
“When I got the role, I started researching everything about Chicago,” recalled Hibbert. “There was so much negativity about the city. When we were getting ready to go and film, people were like, ‘Be careful.’ But when we we got there, there was all this positivity, and there was nothing but love. I’m glad we got to spread that light.”
Epps and Brown said they were excited when they became series regulars in the second season. They were particularly thrilled due to what they call “The Chi’s” commitment to showing a more realistic version of their hometown.
“I thought that the show was going to be like that movie ‘Chi-Raq,’ which is all about violence,” Epps said, referring to Spike Lee’s 2015 film. “‘The Chi’ just shows everyday life, people going to work. It’s really authentic.” Added Brown: “Since I grew up in Chicago, it’s great to see all the references to real streets and neighborhoods. It means so much that this show pays attention to every little detail.”
The series also shows how each of the three friends has had to grow up fast. “Our innocence has been taken away,” said Hibbert. “Kevin witnessed a murder. Jake saw his brother pass away. All three of us were forced to grow up quicker.”
Waithe said she did not have a master plan for the young characters when the series started. “This show is about me being a vessel, and the characters are a vessel as well.”
But she said the young characters are a main draw for the older audience. “The adult fans are really locked into their story. It’s great. I’ve watched them grow up, and the viewers have watched them grow up as well.”
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The beginning of the current season sees the trio moving more toward young adulthood. Kevin’s obsession with video games is leading him in unexpected directions. Jake is conflicted when his drug-addicted mother, who has been absent most of his life, reappears. Papa is trying to expand his social media influence with his podcast, “Papa’s Pulpit.”
The continuing popularity of the series has not sparked additional competitiveness among the three. “Our chemistry is always there and directors know when we do our scenes together, we are always on,” said Brown.
Hibbert added: “We play games when we’re working together, like, ‘Let’s finish this in two takes.’ We keep each other on our toes.”
What will happen to the young characters in the future is uncertain, Waithe said. “For me, I’d like to see one of them step out of Chicago for a bit, maybe go to college. I hope the audience would be able to roll with that, because that’s what happens in real life.”
As for the young actors, all are aware that at some point, the series will end, and they already are planning for life after “The Chi.” Brown and Epps are interested in pursuing music, and they also have their own clothing lines. Hibbert is intent on seeking “quality” roles and would like to own a studio one day.
But Brown also sees another possibility in their collective futures.
“I would personally like to see a spinoff with the three of us,” he said. “They could show us going to college, or doing something else together. People really love the dynamic between us, so it makes sense to me. There’s so much story to tell.”