Yolonda Ross really wanted to play Jada, a single mom who works as a nurse while raising her teenage son in "The Chi."
But the Omaha born-and-raised actress didn’t get the chance when the pilot for the Showtime series was cast.
“The funny thing about this one is I auditioned for it two years ago,” Ross said Thursday from her Los Angeles home. “It was one of two auditions I liked for the whole year. Jada stuck with me and so did the story. It was all really good. She was a character I related to. When I didn’t get it, it really sucked.
“Then the whole show was recast and they came back to me. It was really fast when it happened. Next thing I knew I was in Chicago shooting it.”
“The Chi,” which will premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday on the premium channel, revolves around a handful of teenage boys and 20-something men who live on the South Side of Chicago.
Each of them has his own storyline that eventually connects in some way with the others. And each has a family, which is where Jada comes in.
Ross, however, isn’t playing the mom role out of experience.
“I don’t have any kids,” she said. “I don’t even have a pet. But I relate to single mothers grinding. I feel like single mothers take care of the world. They work and work and take care of everyone, except themselves. They don’t have time.“
Jada, at least in the opening episodes, is a tough, loving mom to her son Emmett, who, in Ross’s words is “busy,” having fathered two babies and, as the series opens, maybe a third. She’s not interested, she tells Emmett, in “raising any more nappy-headed little boys.”
“There’s definitely a little bite to Jada,” said Ross, noting Jada’s edge is what allows her to relate to her son and to the girls he brings home, defying his mother’s orders.
Nor does the tart-tongued Jada immediately reflect the soft-spoken Ross.
“I’m more timid,” she said. “But anybody that knows me knows that Jada is in there. You just don’t want to see her come out … I feel like the gift I’ve been given is I just can become other people. I don’t want you to see Yolonda on screen.”
"The Chi" has been receiving rave reviews for its portrayal of African-American life on Chicago’s South Side. That’s the second time Ross has been in a series that brought a realistic view of African-Americans to the screen, having appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down," a Netflix series set around the birth of hip-hop in New York in the ‘70s.
“It’s happening more and more,” said Ross, who also is a writer, artist and director. “The doors are opening up and staying open. I feel like people are pushing back against the establishment of the entertainment business. A huge part of that is letting us write our stories as opposed to having white men write them.”
“The Chi” was created and written by Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a comedy writing Emmy for “Master of None," who grew up in the Chicago neighborhoods where the series is set and was filmed. Waithe’s writing, visual presentation and vision for the series, Ross said, guarantees that “The Chi” rings true.
“Someone who grew up in a black household knows this, all the little things, and doesn’t even think of them,” Ross said. “When we see them on the screen, it’s ‘That’s right. That’s who we are.' I’m happy to be part of that.”
“The Chi” is timely as politicians, most notably President Donald Trump, have demonized Chicago for its crime and violence, hammering away at statistics and extreme examples of shootings without truly looking at the people and their lives.
“That’s what the show is really trying to do — bringing the humanity to the screen,” Ross said. “The news — sadly it comes off as entertainment sometimes — just focuses on the violence to the point where you think all the black people in those neighborhoods do is shoot each other. That definitely still happens. But with the show, we want to show how that happens, bad decisions, being in the wrong place.”
With “Treme,” set in the New Orleans neighborhood that gave the series its name; “The Get Down,” set in the Bronx; and, now, the South Side of “The Chi,” Ross has been in series set in three of the country’s most instantly recognized African-American areas. So where does she want to go next? South Central L.A.? Atlanta?
“I have a show that I’m creating that takes place in Omaha,” Ross said. “That’s my focus. I want to get that show out. That would be my career highlight.”