‘The Chi’ Season 5: How young cast members ‘steal the show’

Life in The Chi has never been easy.

The Showtime drama about a busy black neighborhood in south Chicago is filled with characters trying to pursue their dreams who are aware of the many obstacles — economic hardship, police corruption, violence — that might stand in their way.

It’s not just adults trying to look their best; The children of “The Chi” also face challenges. In the pilot episode, which premiered in 2018, a group of three boys discuss auditioning for a school production of The Wiz and are awkward with girls. At the end of the episode, you witness a murder and fear for your life when the gunman discovers him.

Created by Emmy-winning actress Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), “The Chi,” at times compared to HBO’s “The Wire” for its somber portrayal of black life, has become one of the premium drama’s flagship dramas. network, drawing a solid audience intrigued by its large cast of characters, all of whose lives are intertwined to varying degrees.

But as the series enters its fifth season, which began last month, the teens who started out as supporting characters have come closer to the center of attention, with the drama tracing their evolution from boys to men.

The camaraderie between Kevin Williams (Alex Hibbert), Jake Taylor (Michael Epps) and Stanley “Papa” Jackson (Shamon Brown Jr.) has become a key element of the series, making the young actors fan-favorites. And the interactions between the characters, as well as their individual storylines, gave audiences a clear perspective on young black men coming of age in difficult environments.

“People come and tell us we’re stealing the show,” Epps said. “They said they were just watching it for us.” Brown added, “They’ve seen us grow and develop, and it was eye-opening for adults to see what we had to go through.” Hibbert chimed in “We’re young, but we’re going through a lot. There’s bullying, there’s mental health. Adults will tell me that they identify with our characters the most because they were kids before and they witnessed what we’re going through, all the heartbreak and awkwardness.”

While recently staying in Los Angeles at Showtime’s West Hollywood headquarters to attend the BET Awards, the trio displayed the warm, teasing chemistry that was evident on screen. They pointed out that their bond is easy and that they are friends both off-screen and on the show.

A teenage actor leans against a white wall

Actor Alex Hibbert who plays Kevin on Showtime’s The Chi.

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Said Hibbert, “We just fell in. Even if there is a fight, we always get back together. We are always just a phone call away 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 when starting, is now 16.

Their characters are decidedly different. Showing more academic potential than his friends and fond of flirting, Kevin lives with his mother Nina, her wife Dre and his sister Keisha. Athletic Jake, who stands out with his long pigtails and thin build, is at risk of being influenced by criminals in his family. Dad, whose father is a church leader, loves to eat, joke, and give unsolicited advice to his buddies.

Originally, the three were only intended to appear in a limited number of episodes in the first season, focusing primarily on a number of older characters, including Brandon Johnson (Jason Mitchell), an aspiring chef; Emmett Washington (Jacob Latimore), a busy young father with a complicated love life; and Ronnie Davis (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a drunk war veteran.

The multi-layered narrative begins in the pilot when a young man is murdered on the street. Brandon’s younger half-brother, Coogie (Jahking Guillory), is falsely suspected as a murderer and targeted by Ronnie, the victim’s “father figure”. Ronnie tracks down Coogie and shoots him in an encounter witnessed by Kevin. When Ronnie spots Kevin, the boy fears for his life and tells Brandon, who swears revenge.

Hibbert, who had a starring role in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” said he didn’t think his role would last beyond the first season. Unlike Epps and Moore, he doesn’t live in Chicago but in Miami.

“Once I got the role, I started researching everything about Chicago,” Hibbert recalls. “There was so much negativity in town. As we got ready to film, people said, ‘Be careful.’ But when we got there, there was all this positivity and there was nothing but love. I’m glad we were able to spread this light.”

Epps and Brown said they were excited when they became regulars on the series in season two. They were particularly excited about what they call “The Chi’s” commitment to show a more realistic version of their hometown.

A teenage actor with a baseball cap reading "crown me" posing in front of a white wall.

Actor Michael Epps who plays Jake in Showtime’s The Chi.

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“I thought the show was going to be like the movie ‘Chi-Raq,’ which is all about violence,” Epps said, referring to Spike Lee’s 2015 film Everyday life, people going to work. It’s really authentic.” Moore added, “Growing 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 quickly each of the three friends had to grow up. “Our innocence was taken from us,” Hibbert said. “Kevin witnessed a murder. Jake watched his brother die. All three of us were forced to grow up faster.”

Waithe said she didn’t have a master plan for the young characters when the series started. “This show is about me being a vessel, and the characters are vessels too.”

But she said the young characters are a key draw for older audiences. “The adult fans are really locked into her story. It is great. I watched her grow up, and viewers watched her grow up too.”

With the start of the current season, the trio is moving more towards young adulthood. Kevin’s obsession with video games takes him in unexpected directions. Jake is conflicted when his drug addict mother, who has been absent for most of his life, reappears. Papa is trying to expand his influence on social media with his podcast, Papa’s Pulpit.

The continued popularity of the series hasn’t sparked any additional competitiveness among the three. “Our chemistry is always there, and the directors know that when we do our scenes together, we’re always there,” Brown said.

Hibbert added, “We play games when we work together, like, ‘Let’s finish this in two takes.’ We keep each other busy.”

What will happen to the young characters in the future is uncertain, Waithe said. “I’d like to see one of them leave Chicago for a while, maybe go to college. I hope audiences can relate to that because that’s what happens in real life.”

A teenage actor poses for a photo in front of a white wall

Actor Shamon Brown Jr. who plays dad on Showtime’s The Chi.

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

As for the young actors, everyone knows that the series will eventually end, and they are already planning a life after The Chi. Interested in music, Brown and Epps also have their own clothing lines. Hibbert strives to seek “quality” roles and would like to own his own studio one day.

But Brown also sees another possibility in their future together.

“Personally, I’d love to see a spinoff with the three of us,” he said. “They could show us how we go to college or do something else together. People really love the dynamic between us, so it makes sense to me. There is so much to tell.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-07-07/the-chi-season-5-cast-alex-hibbert-michael-epps-shamon-brown-jr ‘The Chi’ Season 5: How young cast members ‘steal the show’

Sarah Ridley

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