South side stories: Chicago-based drama 'The Chi' returns for a third season

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Sarah Passingham / TV Media
Alex Hibbert stars in "The Chi"

Alex Hibbert stars in "The Chi"

In the crowded space of Chicago-based television dramas, Showtime's "The Chi" stands out. From its inception, the series has strived to tell some of the personal stories of south side Chicago residents that are often glossed over by sensational news headlines and out-of-touch procedurals. Rather than detailing the city's emergency situations from first responders' points of view, "The Chi" highlights the lives of the people who really live in Chicago's south side neighborhood. The third season of "The Chi" premieres Sunday, June 21, on Showtime.

If you are unfamiliar with "The Chi," the series opens with two deaths in its premiere episode. A young man is killed, wires are crossed and another young man is killed in retribution. A boy, Kevin (Alex Hibbert, "Moonlight," 2016), happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time that night and locks eyes with the murderer. The killer, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, "Queen of Katwe" 2016), unable to help himself out of the web in which he's become tangled, tries to keep word of what he did from spreading, even chasing Kevin down at one point. The series expands to include the stories of all of the people touched by those two deaths.

"The Chi" takes the violence and stereotypes that often exist in depictions of Chicago's south side and attempts to twist them into something that better resembles reality. It does depict gun violence and graphic deaths, but the cameras remain on the characters involved, telling their very human stories rather than panning over to the responders who swoop in after the fact.

The true breakout stars of "The Chi" have to be the show's younger cast members. They give the series some levity portraying Kevin and his preteen friends, as they get into typical preteen mischief, and Kevin's sister, Keisha, who is figuring things out for herself as a teenager. Keisha is portrayed by Birgundi Baker, who you may recognize from her first role as young Carol in Fox's music industry drama "Empire." From trailers released by Showtime previewing Season 3 of "The Chi," it appears that Keisha's love life is central to the season's plot. As a graduate of Howard University's Musical Theatre program, there's no doubt that Baker can handle the heavy lifting.

Viewers can also expect to see Ronnie's rebirth and Kevin embracing and struggling with everything that comes with growing up. Kevin's birthday isn't the only celebration on the south side as his and Keisha's mother marries her new wife. Their wedding ceremony is featured alongside the funeral of Brandon, who was a mentor to Kevin. Brandon was portrayed by Jason Mitchell ("Straight Outta Compton," 2015) for the first two seasons of "The Chi," but Mitchell was fired from the show after complaints of harassment from a crew member and one of his co-stars.

Birgundy Baker as seen in "The Chi"

Birgundy Baker as seen in "The Chi"

Lena Waithe, the Chicago born and raised creator of "The Chi" and Emmy Award-winning writer, set out to use her memories of growing up in the city's south side to craft a drama series more empathetic to the neighborhood's residents than she had ever seen before. She wanted to depict what life is like in south side Chicago beyond the oft-told news stories and scripted tales about gun violence in the area. Waithe told The Guardian in a 2018 interview that she wanted to depict her hometown, saying, "I want to tell a story about where I'm from and the people that are there versus just the headlines." Waithe went on to say that "it's really important for young brown kids to see other brown kids on television because it's like you're seeing a version of yourself that you hope to be."

Waithe has channeled her ambition well and has created a number of projects her younger self would be proud of. Aside from "The Chi," she created two recently premiered comedy series for BET, "Boomerang," a sequel to the 1992 Eddie Murphy movie of the same name, and "Twenties," a project that started for Waithe when she herself was in her 20s in Los Angeles.

The "Master of None" actress is not only the creator, writer and producer of "The Chi," she also guest stars in the show's third season as Camille Halloway, a hopeful Chicago mayoral candidate. It appears that "The Chi" is ready to reach out beyond the lives of the families that the series has followed for its first two seasons and focus on a form of systemic change for the south side in Halloway's optimistic run for mayor.

Waithe is not the only member of the team behind "The Chi" to make their way onto the screen. Rapper-actor-producer and Academy Award winner Common ("Hell on Wheels") stepped out of his executive producing chair and into the role of Rafiq, imam at the south side mosque where Ronnie seeks refuge in Season 1 of "The Chi."

Don't miss the third season premiere of "The Chi" when it airs Sunday, June 21, on Showtime.