Lena Waithe on inclusivity and her insatiable love of sneakers

Courtesy of Netflix

Lena Waithe, who plays Denise in "Master of None," thinks scripted television is "reawakening" and making inclusivity a priority.

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Lena Waithe is not a basketball player, though she's often mistaken for one.

"When I'm flying and I have on sweats, a hat, and sneakers, people always assume that I'm a high school kid going to an away game," she said. And though she's a mega-fan of the sport, her balling skills are questionable. Though she was pretty decent at hitting a shuttlecock across the net during her gym class badminton games.

Waithe, a 33-year-old Chicago-native, plays Denise on the Aziz Ansari co-created Netflix show "Master of None," which released the second season on May 12. Though most viewers see Waithe as an actor because of her role, she maintains that she's a writer first. She actually wrote the eighth episode of the season, "Thanksgiving," which tells the story of Denise's complex relationship with her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett) through a series of Thanksgivings from the '90s to the present. 

Additionally, Waithe developed her own coming-of-age themed show, "The Chi," which was recently picked up by Showtime with a tentative release date. A publicly out queer person of color, she is changing the game of television. But, it's not all scripts and inclusivity crusades. On Waithe's spare time, she harbors an obsession with sneakers. We caught up with her to talk about the importance of representation, her favorite television shows of all time, and her everlasting love for Michael Jordan.

espnW: Season 2 of "Master of None" is getting rave reviews. Were you surprised by the warm reception?

Lena Waithe: Maybe that's why I'm so chipper. It's been overwhelming. It's been heartwarming. It's been validating, even though I don't believe in looking for outside sources of validation. The fact that I've had so much creative freedom, and that Netflix and Aziz let me write the story and tell it from a very specific and semi-autobiographical point of view, and that people have been excited about [episode 8], it was the universe saying, "You're good at this."

espnW: Denise as a character and yourself as a creator, is a great example of specificity in representation. What does that mean to you?

LW: It means everything. I'm a big believer in writing really good dialogue. For people of color who write television [our dialogue] goes through a lot of channels. It goes through rounds and rounds of notes, often by people who don't look like those who the story is about. Often times you get these shows that don't really feel authentic. It is still very difficult for people of color and queer people of color to get their material onto screen without a lot of filters. The reason why [FX show] "Atlanta" and [Oscar Best Picture winner] "Moonlight" work so beautifully is that they were able to tell their story in their way. 

espnW: Do you think Hollywood is evolving -- in that people of color are able to finally see their truths onscreen? 

LW: I think it's beautiful. I think we're a part of ... I could say renaissance. I could say a reawakening. I could say the paradigm is shifting. But, the truth is that I think black artists have always moved the culture forward. We come from a long line of that, all the way back to Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. That's where we come from. That's who we are. What those writers wrote about was almost a form of resistance. Even their love poems were forms of resistance, in terms of them saying what they want, and demanding to be seen as human beings. We're doing another form of that, it just happens to be in a different medium. To me there's nothing more revolutionary than a white boy in Connecticut watching the pilot of "Atlanta." It's almost like him being pulled in by this young, black man's voice and aesthetic. That's what the revolution looks like today.

However, we [as people of color] still don't own [many] networks. We still don't own many studios. To me, I think that's the next step. We can write, sing, dance, tap and perform all day long, but it goes back to us owning the platforms on which we put our art.

espnW: What shows did you watch growing up? 

LW: I'm a huge fan of ['90s-era sitcom] "A Different World." It was more than just a spin-off of "The Cosby Show" to me. It was a really powerful thing. It was a show about a historically black college with phenomenal characters they created to inhabit this world. That TV show was revolutionary and I don't think it gets the credit it deserves when people talk about timeless television. It should be up there with ['70s programming, like] "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H" and the "Mary Tyler Moore Show." Talk to any black person in my age group and they'll say "A Different World" is why they went to college. The show literally changed my life and it boggles my mind that it doesn't get the kind of love it deserves.

espnW: You're from Chicago, which is a big sports town, how did that influence your life?

LW: I love basketball! When I'm flying and I have on sweats, a hat, and sneakers, people always assume that I'm a high school kid going to an away game. And I always say no, I'm a fan of the game. I was born in '84 and I'm a '90s kid, so when I was growing up we were the reigning [NBA] champions. Jordan was on the court. I was born a basketball fan just because of the way we were killin' it. I'm still a Bulls' fan, and I know we're struggling right now. But even when my team gets knocked out, I try and watch the most exciting teams.

Right now, I think Houston is really interesting, and the Celtics are looking really fly with Isaiah Thomas. Obviously, I love Steph Curry. I think he's dope and a really cool player to watch. I like watching the sport, but I don't like playing it.

espnW: You're a Jordan fan, but do you have a favorite pair of his kicks?

LW: I'm a fan of the [Air Jordan] 11s. I also really like 2s. I got a pair of Radio Raheems [which were created as an homage to the character in Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing"]. I also really like 13s, which I'm wearing today. I have black and white, blue, and red as well. However, 3s are the most comfortable of Js I think. I've also become a fan of 1s because they're so classic. I could go all day. They're like children. I'm a fan. I'm a connoisseur and I'm a big believer.

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