THE STORY BE­HIND A ‘MAS­TER’-FUL COM­ING OUT

BY YVONNE VIL­LAR­REAL

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - yvonne.vil­lar­real@la­times.com

It was a mo­ment Lena Waithe had lit­tle in­ter­est in shar­ing. Sure, as a writer, Waithe wanted to tell queer nar­ra­tives. But a “com­ing out” story? Well, she wasn’t ea­ger to re­visit that chap­ter of her life. And she also felt like it had be­come a trope for ev­ery LGBTQ char­ac­ter. But then she had a meet­ing with “Mas­ter of None” co-cre­ators Aziz An­sari and Alan Yang as they were be­gin­ning to think about Sea­son 2 of the Netf lix com­edy, in which she plays Denise, a friend of An­sari’s char­ac­ter, Dev. A dis­cus­sion about her cur­rent re­la­tion­ship led to ques­tions about how Waithe had come out to her fam­ily. “It be­came clear we had a lot of ma­te­rial for an episode,” An­sari re­calls in an email. “It was all in­ter­est­ing, hi­lar­i­ous and not quite like any­thing I’d seen on TV/film be­fore.”

The re­sult is the Emmy-nom­i­nated “Thanks­giv­ing” episode, which tells the story of Denise dis­cov­er­ing her sex­u­al­ity and re­veal­ing it to her friends and fam­ily over the course of five Thanks­giv­ings spread over 22 years. Vet­eran actress Angela Bas­sett guest starred as Denise’s con­ser­va­tive sin­gle mother.

Dur­ing a re­cent week­day, Waithe sits next to Bas­sett — their af­fec­tion for each other on dis­play — to dis­cuss the episode that was a stand­out among crit­ics and view­ers, who praised its nu­anced nar­ra­tive told from the per­spec­tive of a black les­bian — a nee­dle in the TV haystack, to say the least. Waithe and An­sari, who co-wrote the episode, share the writ­ing-for-a-com­edy-se­ries nom­i­na­tion.

A po­etic turn of events when you con­sider she needed coax­ing to even tackle it. An­sari and Yang in­sisted it was a story best told by Waithe her­self. But she was re­luc­tant — al­ready at ca­pac­ity with other projects.

“Aziz was just like, ‘What you can do with this story... I can’t du­pli­cate that,’ ” Waithe re­calls. So in a ho­tel room in Lon­don, over three days, she and An­sari wrote the episode. For the more per­sonal mo­ments, like the com­ing-out scene, An­sari would leave the room so Waithe could write alone.

Waithe says she ap­proached the episode from a hero’s per­spec­tive and also came to bet­ter un­der­stand her mother’s point of view.

“I had sur­vived that thing that I was so afraid of,” she says of the com­ing-out ex­pe­ri­ence.

Bas­sett, a fan of the show’s first sea­son, was lured by the episode’s po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate con­ver­sa­tion and un­der­stand­ing.

“It was poignant, it was mov­ing and it was funny,” says the actress, who was also nom­i­nated — in the guest actress cat­e­gory. “I think some­times we can be judg­men­tal, and then we lose out on time with peo­ple we love, and even­tu­ally we come back around

and say, ‘Was it re­ally worth it?’ ”

Waithe wanted to high­light cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions within the black com­mu­nity. Last year, the film “Moon­light” sub­verted ideas of black mas­culin­ity in its story of a young, gay black boy grow­ing up in Florida. Waithe was of­fer­ing a fe­male per­spec­tive on what it means to be black and gay. In the episode, a young Denise opts to wear baggy jeans and a base­ball cap in­stead of a dress.

“Girls get away with it for a while, ac­tu­ally,” Waithe says. “Be­cause it is less ta­boo for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a young man to be ef­fem­i­nate. “But that’s why I thought it was so im­por­tant to show that,” she says, “but also show how a mom, a black mom es­pe­cially of that gen­er­a­tion was like, ‘No. Wear the dress. We’ll make it fit.’ There's that de­sire for ap­pear­ances, but there’s not that much worry.” But when it con­fronts her, whether it’s me com­ing out or me bring­ing an­other girl home, she doesn’t like it too much.”

Waithe cred­its di­rec­tor Melina Mat­soukas and An­sari for their at­ten­tion to de­tail in mak­ing the story res­onate — from those din­ner ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions about O.J. Simp­son and San­dra Bland to that photo of Jen­nifer Aniston taped to the ceiling of Denise’s be­d­room.

Though, for the record, the Aniston poster was on Waithe’s be­d­room wall, not the ceiling.

“Aziz was just like, ‘What you can do with this story... I can’t du­pli­cate that.’ ” — LENA WAITHE

Netf lix

ANGELA Bas­sett, left above and op­po­site, and Lena Waithe played mom, daugh­ter on “Mas­ter of None.”

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