Jonica T. Gibbs
Gabrielle Graham as Nia, Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie, and Christina Elmore as Marie in Twenties
Screenwriter, actress and show creator, Lena Waithe had a choice.
She could reflect on being a 20-something and forever regret her mistakes, or instead mine them for gold and turn them into wisdom and comedy. She opted for the latter with her hit show Twenties on BET.
The show's main character, Hattie, played by Jonica T. Gibbs (aka Jojo) is loosely based on Lena - herself, a lesbian woman of color who fought to get her voice heard in the entertainment business.
And although Jonica and Lena hail from different parts of the country (Lena from Chicago, Jojo from the South) and had different paths leading to Los Angeles, the intersection of those paths resulted in a spark that helps make Twenties so unique.
Lena, was there anything you experienced when you were younger that made you realize you HAD to be a writer?
Lena: I think it was something that was always destined. And also there was a real connection to television writing for me. It all boils down to the name of my production company which is named after a fictitious college from a spinoff of The Cosby Show, A Different World. And of course Susan Fales-Hill, the showrunner on A Different World, is now the showrunner on Twenties.
I believe things are circular and things come around when they're supposed to.
There are so many reasons why people don't necessarily walk in whatever their purpose is. But I think I was one of those people who didn't know how to do anything else. There are a lot of things I've sacrificed and lost and can't do because I'm walking in my purpose, but I'm willing to sacrifice those things in order to get to do what I do every day.
And Jojo, you came from comedy, by way of journalism. When did you first know you wanted to act?
Jojo: Unlike Lena, I took a lot of different types of jobs, but it was a lot of times for survival. I always knew I wanted to act. Just getting out of college, I felt like, "Okay, I have this journalism degree, let me use it, I guess."
Especially when you come from black families, maybe you're the first generation to go to college, they kind of see that piece of paper as "now it's time to get a 9 to 5 job." And I was sticking with that route, but eventually realized that I knew for a fact I didn't want to do any of things behind me that I'd done.
And I really owed it to myself to just try to pursue acting. Because I knew it was something I'd always wanted to do and it would be a disservice to myself to not at least give myself a shot.
I read that both of you had interesting coming out stories. Lena, you even wrote a Master of None episode about it? Can you both talk about that?
Lena: I don't think my coming out story was that interesting, but it wasn't what I guess people would expect? When I was asked about it by Alan Yang and Aziz, they asked, was your family religious? Did they want to kick you out? Did they throw the Bible at you? And I said, "My family is a group of lazy-ass Christians, so they couldn't throw a Bible at me if there's not one in reach!"
They really more cared about what the neighbors thought and maintaining a certain image, so to speak, of a middle class, black family. That was interesting to the (Master of None) guys who said you should tell that story, we haven't seen that.
When it came out and got the attention it did, no one was more surprised than me! That's when Melina Matsoukas and I bonded, so much so that I asked her then, when I was still writing Queen and Slim and filming that episode, if she would direct this movie I'm doing.
So it really kind of sparked a lot of things and I was grateful for that opportunity to tell that story and for so many people to see themselves. It was really a blessing.
Jojo: For me, it was a little different. I had to come out twice! The first time I tried to talk to my mom about it, she wasn't trying to hear it. We swept it under the rug and acted like the conversation never happened. My mom is like 5'11, so when she stood up out of the bed, I was like, "Hey you know what? I'm gonna head on back downstairs. I don't think today is the day."
I felt like I was living two lives. In L.A. I was out and living my life. And nobody back at home knew anything. I was going on stage doing comedy about dating women. And that's kind of low key where I got the idea to post a video of myself doing a comedy set where I talked about coming out to my mom the first time I tried.
I posted it on Facebook because I knew all my family, especially my older family members would see it. And actually the reception was so great! They thought it was hilarious!
My mom, when she saw that reaction, was like, "Oh, okay That's funny!" Then she was just like "Live your life!" So I laughed with it and said y'all can either laugh with me or I don't care because I'm good. That's why I was so grateful that I realized that was the best route. Me posting a video doing comedy around it was better than me coming to my family, real serious. You've gotta kinda lead the energy sometimes.
Switching gears to Twenties, Lena you were still in your 20s when you began writing it. Was it weird to see it come to fruition later?
Lena: I think things take awhile, but I also don't think the world was ready to see a masculine presenting black lesbian be the protagonist of a TV show. I would always joke and say I guess I have to be on TV literally, to show that this is something that needs to be a part of the culture.
Because we are a part of the culture but people just don't see us in media all the time. Particularly the sort of stud black lesbian. We're a very specific group and there are a lot of us and I hear from them often. We've always been in the ether. We've always been here. But we've never been center stage and I think that's a reason it took a long time.
I'm grateful that it came out now, when I have complete creative control. On my show The Chi, I didn't have complete creative control until season three. And a lot of that was because I had to grow up and gain some clout. It won an Emmy and put me in a different stratosphere. And it let me do the show the way it needed to be done. And BET is such a place where they really give us space and freedom to do what we want.
Did you know Jojo before she auditioned for Hattie? How did you meet?
Lena: I saw her GoFundMe for her web series. I donated, then got her on the phone to get a sense of what her goals were. She said she really wanted to act. That's why she was doing the web series because she couldn't get into any rooms.
So I told my casting directors Junie & Libby (who cast Twenties) to see her for Hattie and she was perfect! It's one of my favorite stories.
Jojo is someone who if you give an opportunity to, will really shine. And we did and I'm so happy that so many people love her and love the character. Because I could write the F out of it. But if I don't have the right person to come in and play that character and be that role, what's the point? So I'm grateful for the connection and the bond that Jojo and I are continuing to build in helping put this character together.
The show is not only hilarious, but you can sense the love between these friends which makes them feel real and inspiring.
Lena: And we wanted that. Basically because I am queer, I'm closer to my friends than I am my family. I think a big part of that is that they lived through my adulthood. And they were the ones who were there to help me. My family is not here in L.A., so they became my family. But also, as the queer community knows, it's all about, the "chosen family."
So there is always that love for each other. But even when you grow apart, the love still remains. That's really important to me. I'm not a big fan of showing black women whipping each other's heads off. It's not my jam. I know it happens at times, but for me, I really want to show our unity for sure.
It's all so relatable, whether you're black, white, LGBTQ. When you come to L.A., everyone has something to say back home.
Jojo: During my first couple of years in L.A., people were like, "You should go to Atlanta and talk to Tyler Perry!" Everyone thinks you can just get to Tyler Perry like it's easy! I'm like, "I don't think that's the solution Grandma but thank you!" You just take it with a grain of salt sometimes and chalk it up to the best of intentions!
The show has been picked up for another season! What can we expect for the characters?
Lena: Hattie is going to learn a little more about her roots, in terms of her parents! Marie is gonna grow a ton because she has the rug pulled out from under her a little bit. And Nia will also have some familial stuff happening, as well. And there will be a little more of Big Sean. We loved him on the show; people loved him. We're really excited to keep telling this story and to have this show on the air during this time on a network like BET.
We hope more folks find it and tune in! It's really important that it means something to people, so we hope to be a part of people's conversations. Because the show is really special. It means a lot to us, but it also means a lot to a big community. We want them to feel just as "seen" as everybody else.