South Side Story: Exploring Chicago Through the Eyes of 'The Chi' Actor

We chat with Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine from Showtime’s new series, “The Chi,” premiering on January 7.

The last time Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine was in Chicago was 1995 when he appeared in the Steppenwolf production of “Nomathemba.” This year, he spent several months in the city, preparing for his role as Ronnie on “The Chi." Created by Lena Waithe ("Master of None") along with co-executive producer Common, this coming-of-age drama focuses on growing up on the South Side of Chicago with characters whose lives are interconnected in a complex tale of rising above. Mwine chats with Where Chicago about the show and taking in all Chicago has to offer.

What were your impressions of Chicago after spending time in the city? 

A lot of the headlines you read lately about Chicago was not the city I saw. For me that was enlightening and inspired me. I didn’t feel this electric tension that’s written about. Chicago reminded me of the streets I walked in Brooklyn and Harlem when I was in grad school and I just had a great time exploring and taking the train everywhere. There’s a different world here that should be making headlines.

What were some of your favorite places to visit?

The Stony Island Arts Bank was a huge resource and an oasis for me. I also went to see Father Pfleger speak at his church, St. Sabina’s. My favorite restaurant was an Ethiopian place called Ras Dashen [in Edgewater]—their food has this fusion element and is unlike anything I’ve ever had. When my family was in town we went to Chicago Children’s Museum, where I discovered my daughter loves tambourine. One of the things I wished I could have gone to was the Bud Billiken Parade [in August]. I hope to catch that next time if we get picked up for another season. 

The show was filmed locally. Was the community involved?

The thing that’s so great about this production is that besides the starring roles, only two of the supporting actors were cast outside of Chicago. Every other role was cast locally. Shamon Brown Jr., Michael Epps and Barton Fitzpatrick are some local gems that were found that will blow people away. Those are going to be the big discoveries. Also, [the producers] relied heavily on Chicago artists [like Chance the Rapper and Noname] for the music. One of Chance’s songs is one of the first things we hear in the first episode.

When you got the script what made you want to do the show?

For me what was exciting was we were getting to see a world that is rarely depicted on TV. We haven’t seen any show quite like this before. And to have two of the most celebrated artists spearheading it—Common and Lena [Waithe]—was thrilling. This show captures a complexity of the ambitions that people can rise to and achieve, and the obstacles people might be facing and have to try to overcome. To be on cable also means we get to be real messy, which we couldn’t do on a network show.

Common is one of the producers. How active was he in the show?

He not only lends his name to this as an executive producer but he got his hands dirty and got on the ground spending so many days on set. He also acted in several episodes. While we were filming, people would drive by and see him and shout out his name or would want to speak to him. If he’s causing that many people to stop and stare just from a few minutes standing on the corner, hopefully that excitement continues when people realize he's on the show.

What was it like working with the younger actors on this show like Alex Hibbert who we previously saw in ‘Moonlight?’

I think the kids will end up stealing the show. They really are phenomenal and have complex storylines. Their characters on this show are the future. They have their lives ahead of them, and we’ll see what that might be as their lives unfold. My character too has so much that has taken its toll on him in a way; we might discover what led him to where he is. As we watch these kids we will see what obstacles they might be facing them and how they might overcome them.

What else can we expect on future episodes?

My character actually is connected to a lot of different characters, his life intersects with most of them and these connections become more complicated and more entwined and enmeshed as the series continues.