Lena Waithe on Coming Out & Writing Master of None's Best Episode Yet

Lena Waithe
Photography: Austin Hargrave

Lena Waithe found the coming-out process far more liberating the second time around. For the new season of Netflix’s Master of None, in which she plays Denise, sidekick to star Aziz Ansari’s character Dev Shah, the Chicago native teamed with Ansari to co-write an episode that mirrors her own experience telling her mother she’s a lesbian. “The thing about coming out is that you never want to experience it ever again,” says the 33-year-old, sipping tea at a café near Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood, where she lives with her girlfriend. “But to relive it in that way was very validating and freeing, because at the time I thought, Well, this is the end of the world, you know?”

The episode, directed by famed music video director Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Formation”), takes place on various Thanksgivings throughout Denise’s life. There’s one in 1999 when, as a teenager, she comes out to Dev as “Lebanese” because she’s too uncomfortable to use the other L-word; in another, in 2006, she’s sitting at a diner across from her mother, played by a magnetic Angela Bassett, and reveals the secret she’s been keeping from her. Her mom’s response: “I just don’t want life to be hard for you. It’s hard enough being a black woman in this world. Now you want to add something else to that?” 

Waithe explains that while some of the episode is fictional, much of it stems directly from her life. “I’ve made a living off of being my gay black self,” she says. “People really respond to this character, and I think that’s a triumph. My mom will see this. Her biggest worry was who’s going to know, but now that I’m a public figure, she’s cool about it.” 

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In Waithe’s mind, minority writers have a responsibility to share their stories. “In this world, we’re often silenced,” she says. “Particularly as a black woman, you’re told to shut up and sit down. We’ve been silenced for hundreds of years. No more.” 

She found the collaboration process especially empowering. “It was Netflix, Aziz, and Melina, and they were all like, ‘No, bitch. Say what you gotta say. This is your moment. This is your story. We’re not gonna compromise it.’ That was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

The notion of giving a voice to the marginalized makes sense in the current political climate, says Matsoukas, who directed two episodes of the second season of Master of None. “We’ve never really seen a black lesbian come out on television, as far as I can remember,” she says. “That’s important. I’m a minority woman, so I relate very much to that. Coming from being educated in film and TV and being a viewer my whole life, I didn’t get many images of my people’s story. That is one of my goals as a filmmaker: to make that a more normal experience for the world to see.”

Waithe has always had a similar mission, but she fought for years to gain any creative control. When she first moved to Los Angeles, she tried to establish a career as a writer, serving as an assistant on the TV show Girlfriends and the film Notorious while struggling to pay her phone bill. She finally got a gig on the Nickelodeon show How to Rock in 2012, but it took two more years for her to hit her stride. Her pilot presentation for Twenties, available on YouTube, features a lead character who speaks as candidly as Waithe does in real life. It was produced by Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment and optioned by BET in 2014; that same year Waithe netted a producer credit on the film Dear White People.

Her very personal season-two arc on Master of None is a major stepping-stone, but it’s only the beginning. Waithe will dig even deeper into her past in the long-gestating series The Chi, which was finally ordered to series by Showtime early this year. It follows the interwoven lives of several characters living in the south side of Chicago, where Waithe grew up. Though she’s one of the stars, alongside rapper Common and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), she’d rather be behind the scenes, making an impact on her own terms. “I really have to earn that right to call myself a writer,” Waithe says. “I earned the title producer. I’m earning the right to call myself an actor. I treat everything like it’s precious. It’s art. You’ve got to work to earn that respect.”

Photography: Austin Hargrave

Hair: Ananda Tuyes

Makeup: Michelle Diaz

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