Lena Waithe, the writer and actor who stars as Denise in Netflix’s Master of None, is arguably the sitcom’s biggest breakthrough star. While a lot of media attention has been focused on her co-stars Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim, and Alan Yang, who are all fantastic in the brilliant and sometimes flawed series, it’s Waithe who provides the show with an emotional core and comedic stability.
As Denise, Waithe consistently provides Ansari’s Dev with much needed “real talk,” and her scenes are sometimes unflinching, but always funny. It’s why Waithe’s Emmy nomination and win for co-writing “Thanksgiving,” hands down the finest episode of season two, was so well deserved.
Waithe’s victory speech as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing won over both the Emmy audience and the internet:
I love you all, and last but certainly not least, my LGBTQIA family. I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it. And for everybody out there that showed so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.
Waithe was profiled by Buzzfeed’s Tomi Obari earlier this year, and the Master of None star is in high-demand for the foreseeable future. Not only will she continue to play Denise should Master of None return for a third season, but Showtime also picked up her drama The Chi, about a group of black men from Chicago, and she is set to star in Ready Player One, the much-anticipated Steven Spielberg adaptation of the cult YA novel. According to Buzzfeed, Waithe’s uniqueness and star turn is a direct result of her versatility, a trait she learned rather than inherited.
Waithe belongs to a new breed of Hollywood star: the multihyphenate. Writer, director, producer, actor — combining these titles is no longer the preserve of big-name celebrities for their vanity projects. Increasingly, they’re the way people traditionally locked out of the Hollywood system — queer women of color certainly among them — can make the television and film that they want to see. Like her peers Issa Rae and Donald Glover, Waithe recognizes the necessity of being able to do it all — becoming versatile creators who eventually secure the support of major networks to make their own shit. And with their innovative work, they are forcing Hollywood to reckon with its own homogenous storytelling…At one point Waithe was in deep conversation with a group of black women. Afterwards, when I asked her who they were, she told me they were assistants who had the lowdown on the after-afterparty.
“You know I used to assist and so I’m always looking out, keeping in touch,” Waithe said. For many years, she grinded as an assistant in LA, working for a fierce cadre of black woman directors including Ava Duvernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Mara Brock Akil. But she was also writing, producing, and directing her own work that she’d post online. She gave it her all because she had to. There was no room for a Plan B.