The trip to the grocery store is going well for the trio of pre-teen boys sent there on a mom-ordered excursion until they hit a snag that finds them staring down an aisle filled with Kotex and Always.
Papa, the chubby, bespectacled member of the group pipes up as his two cohorts sport daunted looks on their faces.
“My mom likes pads, but my aunt is more of a classic lady,” he says, trying to help his baffled friend Kevin choose the right tampons for his mother.
Jake, another of the boys, crudely asks how Papa has this information.
“Because I pay attention when we go shopping,” Papa says, without a hint of shame in his voice.
“Why?” Kevin asks.
“Knowledge,” Papa says proudly, tapping a single finger to his head for good measure.
Papa is not the central character on Showtime’s “The Chi,” the Lena Waithe-created Chicago-set drama that has drawn comparisons to “The Wire.” But his existence is central to Waithe’s goal for the series: to show there’s more than one way to portray a young man of color on the small screen.
Papa, played by Shamon Brown Jr., is the outlier of his group in many ways.
He’s the kind of kid who likes staying out of trouble. He has an unbreakable self-esteem, lives with his mother and preacher father, loves the arts, will respectfully and innocently call one of the neighborhood’s roughest characters “Mr. Reg,” whittles for fun, doesn’t hesitate to tell his friends he wants “me time,” and calls himself “a Renaissance Man.”
Among his recent lines, given while rehearsing for an upcoming school play with his friends: “I look good in tights. I got the legs for ‘em.”
“He’s definitely an old soul for sure,” Waithe said on the phone recently, when she took time out of promoting her role in Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” to chat about the magic of Papa in her breakout hit series.
“It’s a huge compliment that you say you’ve never seen [a character like] him before because that’s always the mission,” she added. “When you sit down at your computer, you don’t want to be copying something that you’ve already seen.”
The question is, of course, why haven’t we seen someone like Papa before?
In the age of so-called Peak TV, with more options than ever, more awareness of the images being portrayed than ever, how is it so rare to find a young man of color who dares to be the gooey center of empathy and compassion?
There is no one answer. Take your pick from: Hollywood needs more creators of color, more writers of color, more stories from people from different places, and so on.
“I think we just rarely see young black boys being sensitive or thoughtful or…like feminist in a way – even though he doesn’t know what that word means,” Waithe said. “I think it is really important to see a character like Papa who represents a new vision for what it means to be a young black man and to be proud and to be happy and to have joy and to care about people in your life.”
In some ways, that’s the goal for all the characters on “The Chi,” Waithe explained.
Though television has made strides in how black men are depicted, more work remains. “The Chi” aims to be one step toward a future with more nuanced portrayals.
“I think a big thing is to show how human they are and how vulnerable they can be,” Waithe said. “And I think there’s this image that, you know, all black men don’t feel pain…they feel like everyone, they grieve like everyone else, they can break, they know loss.”
It’s easy to dehumanize any group, she added, when they’re shown to be “less than human or superhuman.”
“And so we try to make sure everybody just feels human on the show,” she said.
Waithe credits Brown (“We throw stuff at Shamon and he just takes it and runs with it.”) and her writing “tribe” for bringing Papa to life. But she admits she had some Papa DNA of her own as a kid.
“I think that’s how I grew up to become a television writer because I was always listening and paying attention and always wanted to be around the adults,” she said. “But I think the character is really sort of taken on a life of its own, really.”
Viewers on Twitter love Papa.
Between his GIF-able expressions and his genuine and comical dialogue alike, he’s emerged as a fan favorite for being both #futuresongoals and #friendgoals.
Work on Season 2 of “The Chi,” with Ayanna Floyd Davis as the new showrunner, starts this month.
With the Season 1 finale airing Sunday on Showtime, Waithe teased there will be some resolution and a few loose ends to be picked up next season. She also promised this: “You will finally get to see the play.”
It’s your moment, Renaissance Man.