Lena Waithe joins U. for GAYpril opening ceremonies
Writer, actress and creator Lena Waithe sat calm and cool in the Livingston Student Center, kicking off this year’s GAYpril celebrations with the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities and the Rutgers University Programming Association (RUPA). In a thrift-store Bill Cosby-style sweater, Japanese kicks and a baseball cap, the Southside Chicago native’s trademark boyish style was just as authentic as the stories she told about growing into her role as a Hollywood changemaker.
“I was blessed enough to make the decision early that I want to do (screenwriting and creating) so I (was) in L.A. on a lot as a student, already learning and things like that,” said Waithe, who has always been a big fan of television and films. “I was constantly watching television always, so I’m just thankful for the pay off.”
Among her most well-known works is her "Master of None" episode, which won her the Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series. Known as “The Thanksgiving Episode,” her character, Denise, comes out to her mother. Waithe said she gets asked about it during all of her interviews now.
The episode, which she wrote in three days with co-star and "Master of None" co-creator Aziz Ansari, garnered praise among the LGBTQ community for its representation and storytelling. But before planning season two, Waithe had said she had never thought about telling her coming out story.
“Honestly, (the episode) was a real team effort. A lot of people give me credit, which I appreciate, but I just decided to be as honest about my coming out experience as much as possible on the page. And I really felt like my whole life had been leading up to that moment,” Waithe said with genuine modesty.
Waithe described a meeting she had with Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang, where she pitched story ideas for Denise, when suddenly Yang asked about her coming out story.
“I literally did a one-woman show version of the episode,” Waithe said. “And they were like, ‘That’s an episode.’”
Waithe knew she was leaving for London to film “Ready Player One” and asked Ansari to write the episode and call her when it was done, but Waithe said Ansari told her that was impossible.
“Not that I needed that validation, but what he was saying was, ‘You have a story that nobody else could tell,’” Waithe said.
On her three days off from shooting, Ansari flew to London, and in between watching music videos and making jokes, “The Thanksgiving Episode” was made. It highlighted what it meant to be Black, queer and a woman and the intergenerational struggles that come with coming out, Waithe said. It even touched on elements that Waithe said she didn’t even realize until people watched the episode and pointed them out to her.
She said the only parts Ansari wrote were Dev’s lines and he left the room when she wrote the actual coming out scene. Waithe compared her feelings writing that moment to “(Michael) Jordan in game 6.”
Waithe didn’t consult her mother when it came to writing the episode so as not to taint her own memory of it, but said that she focused on humanizing and empathizing with her.
“She’s coming from a protective standpoint. But also the deeper level was — that’s where the whole thing really blew me away was — my mom was born into a segregated America, in 1953, so for her, what it meant to be a good Black person was to fade to the background. (It) was to not call attention to yourself when you walk into a room,” Waithe said. “And what was sitting in front of her was a daughter she hadn’t bargained for. What was sitting in front of her was a person who had resistance in her veins.”
Being born about 30 years later, Waithe didn’t share the same perspective, but both had to deal with — what Waithe admitted was a stereotype — the question of what people around her would think of her.
“That’s what was really happening,” Waithe said. “Two generations sitting across from each other, trying to figure out how to be a good Black person.”
Waithe expanded on this issue, talking about how famous Black people are held to a different standard and must always have the appearance of perfection, whatever that may be at the time.
The theme for this year’s GAYpril celebration is “Resilience Over Time” and the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities Associate Director Keywuan Caulk said that Waithe was the perfect person to begin the festivities.
“I think when you talk about resilience over time, you can just look at her intersections. Black, woman, queer, breaking through a field where we’re in the background,” Caulk said. “But she’s writing these things, she’s making things happen.”
The two moderators, Avery Arrington and Paige Hammond, prepared to interview Waithe by getting up to date with her recent works and interviews. They agreed that her “genuine and real” persona were exactly what they expected and more.
“She truly cares about people,” Arrington said. “And even behind the scenes and knowing that’s how she is every single day, that was over the top for me.”
But, talking about "Master of None" and Waithe’s childhood music and television preferences invited questions about the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and more specifically the anonymous allegations made in Babe against Ansari.
When asked about whether the allegation against Ansari tarnished the positive representation of "Master of None," Waithe answered in one word: “No.”
She compared "Master of None" to "The Cosby Show" and said that what the latter show meant to her growing up and watching television couldn’t be changed by Cosby’s charges or trial. Waithe even said that the Huxtable’s unintentionally prepared the United States for former President Barack Obama’s presidency and should be merited for that.
“Look, we’re all f***ed up. Some of us more f***ed up than others,” Waithe said when asked to expand upon this in the Q&A portion of the event. “The more f***ed up you are, the better art you make, in a very odd way.”
Waithe then talked about Whitney Houston “who f***ed up literally and figuratively” in her later years, but Waithe said Houston’s music touched her and the world, and then showed her tattoo of Houston’s signature on her arm to the crowd.
“You start to see yourself in a thing,” Waithe said of Houston’s music and art in general. “So when we hear and take in someone’s art, whether we look at it, we listen to it, watch it, whatever it is, you can’t help but have a personal experience with it.”
But, not everyone in the crowd accepted this answer.
Daria Martin, a School of Arts and Science junior, said accountability should have been better highlighted. She said that Waithe’s body language suggested she didn’t want to answer the questions on this subject.
“I enjoyed most of it. (But), when she was talking about — or rather not talking about — accountability when it came to Aziz Ansari that was jarring to me,” Martin said. “I found those things to be problematic.”
Waithe offered the example of herself and her art: “Like if I go do something f***ed up tomorrow, that’s not going to stop someone feeling like 'The Thanksgiving Episode' was the first time they saw themselves.”
After the talk, Martin said, “Maybe not, because they would recognize (that in the hypothetical) she’s done this terrible thing, and you cannot mentally separate that. Especially when it’s something so personal to a lot of folks, like if they’ve been the victims of violence in that way, sexual violence specifically, how can you look at somebody in the media or their media representations and not feel the hurt they’ve produced.”
For television and film fanatics, Waithe’s method of separating art from their creators could bring people peace to continue consuming their old favorites, highlighting the personal connections they’ve made with them.
“I think we really have to start realizing we are all human beings and we all have our s**t. And I’m not apologizing for anyone’s horrid, horrendous behavior, but we all got stuff, (sic)” Waithe said.