'Master of None' actress celebrates coming out
Master of None continues to expand its world in thoughtful, heartwarming ways.
Last year, co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy writing for "Parents," an episode in which thirtysomething New Yorkers Dev (Ansari) and Brian (Kelvin Yu) reflect on their parents' immigrant experience in the U.S.
Season 2 (now streaming on Netflix) turns the lens on Dev's black lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe), whose coming-out story and struggle for acceptance from her mother (Angela Bassett) is told in the season's eighth episode, "Thanksgiving," a series highlight according to many critics.
Waithe, who co-wrote the episode with Ansari, catches up with USA TODAY about the deeply personal half-hour.
How did this come about?
It was definitely not something I was planning to write about. But when I went to the writers' room in New York to go over little bits and pieces of my life that they could use and run with for the character, Alan asked, "What was it like coming out for you?" I started to tell the story about what it was like to grow up in a house with all black women, never even hearing the word "gay" or "lesbian," but not being super Christian. (It was) just all about appearances and how people perceive you.
When I got back to my hotel, Aziz was like, "OK, we have to tell that story. But I need you to help me write it, because I can’t tell the story the way you just did." The brilliant writers’ room came up with the idea to tell the story over a series of Thanksgivings, and then when I went to London to shoot a movie, Aziz came to London and we wrote it in his hotel room in a couple days.
How much does the episode mirror your own coming-out experience?
Well, I’ve only brought one girlfriend home and that’s the girlfriend I’m currently with. I’ve dated girls like (Denise's Instagram-obsessed girlfriend) "NipplesandToes23," but I’ve never brought them home. But a lot of it is real. I literally came out to my mom in a diner. A lot of those lines are pulled from our actual conversation. The way (Denise) came out to Dev is how I came out to my actual friends: I actually said "(I'm) Lebanese."
In that scene, Denise also explains to Dev that many black parents see being gay as "tarnishing" one's trophy.
Coming out is difficult for everyone, whether you're black, white, whatever. But from my own personal experience, and talking to my gay friends who also happen to be people of color, our parents have this thing (where) they're told that (minorities are) less than and not equal. So there's always this desire to be the best. Being different or having an added thing about you that would give someone another reason to look down upon you, for parents of color, it goes against everything they believe in.
My generation, and for me in particular, I don't want to ask for permission to be myself, and if someone doesn't embrace me, (expletive) it. The generation before me, to not be embraced is like Kryptonite. That's (how that) metaphor came to me. I wanted a quick way to explain how I think some people of color view their children, like, "This is my prize." And anything that could affect or tarnish that, that's what freaks them out.
One of the episode's most emotional moments is in the diner, when Denise's mom tells her, "I just don't want life to be hard for you. It is hard enough being a black woman in this world, and now you want to add something else to that?"
That's a real thing that was said to me. Having looked back on it 10 years (later), I came to a better understanding of that thinking. I learned that it's not just difficult for the person coming out, but also for the person that person is coming out to. That was a big thing we wanted to get right, that the mother isn't the villain. She's a person that's processing a big piece of information.
I was a little nervous (on set that day), but I wasn't sad. Reenacting it and bringing it back to life this way is actually a proud moment for me, because we were celebrating what it means to come out and be brave. We were also celebrating my mom and all moms who have been come out to, who try and say the right thing and want to know the best way to love their kid. That's what the scene really represents for me: two people trying to do what's right for them.
Are you nervous for your family to watch it?
No, not particularly. I hope they dig it, and appreciate the love and thought I put into it.