“Writing Brick-by-Brick.” Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis Talks Showtime’s ‘The Chi’
Chicago South Side drama The Chi is back for a second season. Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis sat down with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss her screenwriting career and what goes into running the show.
Ayanna Floyd Davis is originally from Ohio, but she went to Grad School in Chicago. “I thought I wanted to be Barbara Walters, but I figured out very quickly that that’s not what I wanted to do,” joked the screenwriter. “I got interested in plays and I found my voice and found television.”
After school, Floyd Davis was accepted into The Walt Disney Writing Fellowship as one of the first Drama Fellows. There, she landed her first paid writing gig on the series Gideon’s Crossing, from Paul Attanasio (Bull, Donnie Brasco, Homicide – Life On The Streets.) Soon after, Floyd Davis worked on Private Practice, Hit the Floor, Hannibal, Empire, and now she’s producing and writing for Showtime’s hit show The Chi.
Finding Your Voice
Throughout Floyd Davis’ career, it was necessary to discover the voice of a TV show to work as a contributing screenwriter. “It was much different than it is now. I was old school so I watched a lot of television. The Internet wasn’t that big, so I would call production offices to get scripts. I would read and study TV scripts.”
Floyd Davis found it is a necessity to always have a spec script for every TV show she hoped to work on. “I learned how to do it brick-by-brick and I got to work for a lot of big showrunners. Some were easy. Some were hard, which forced me to learn quickly. I did writing and re-writing, got positive feedback, got criticism, and now I’m here.”
Across a career such as this, the first key is to mimic the voice of the showrunner, but it’s also vital to develop your own voice on the page. “When you work for so many TV shows, you do start to lose or not know your voice. So whenever I was on hiatus, I would write original material. Finding your voice is a process and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.”
“You have to find it with what interests you. You have to explore what you want to say and how to say it in a way that’s not hitting people over the head. It’s all a process. The only way to learn it is by reading and writing. It’s that simple. When you read, you raise your IQ, and when you write, you figure out to express yourself.”
Avoiding the Mundane
It was also vital for Floyd Davis to seek out advice over the course of her career. She got the chance to work with Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, Game of Thrones) on Gideon’s Crossing. Taylor once told her, “There’s not enough specificity here.” That stuck with Floyd Davis, because it was a nice way of saying, “This is bland.”
“She might have even said ‘bland,’” joked Floyd Davis. “At the time, it probably hurt my feelings a little, but I’m good about receiving criticisms. I heard her even though I was kind of bummed about it. But that made me start to ask myself, What’s special about this story? What’s special about this character?”
“It’s one thing to mimic what you see on TV and try to recreate that character. It’s another to sit and think about real life, what’s interesting, what dilemmas or life themes you want to explore. That’s what she was challenging me to do. She wanted me to find my own voice through specificity. What makes your character different from the pack?”
“Every show has a rhythm and beat. If I’m creating an original work, I’m a research fanatic. A lot of times, writer’s block just means you need more information. I think, Maybe I don’t know enough about this. Maybe I need to read more. The project dictates my habits.”
Re-tooling The Chi
Floyd Davis was considering taking a break after her stint on Empire, but a friend pushed her to meet with Waithe to re-tool The Chi for an official Showtime pick up. “I really didn’t want to work, but my friend pushed me to do it. I met with Lena and came on the show for three months to re-tool the show.”
Officially, Floyd Davis wasn’t on the staff for the first season after the series got picked up, but she did sign on for the second season as a writer. “I got a call from Lena [Waithe, the show’s creator] saying she wanted a showrunner who could build on the show with specificity and authenticity to take it to the next level.”
Lena described the series as “defining the human side of crime statistics in Chicago.” As someone who formerly lived on the South Side of Chicago, Floyd Davis related to the characters in the drama and the big picture idea for The Chi. “I knew the community well, so I decided to come onboard and (wo)man the ship.”
The new showrunner describes the series as a “neighborhood show.” This meant creating a second season of The Chi where viewers felt like they were watching documented people rather than actors. “I really wanted the show to live in these character moments and not so much in plot turns. I also wanted to make sure we kept the grit, the edge, the heart…”
“In these communities – and for a lot of black people – there are high highs and low lows. I once heard somebody say, ‘People like black people’s rhythm, but they don’t like our blues.’ For me, it was about balancing rhythm and blues… joy and pain. That was the balancing act, but we still needed to entertain.”
The show has also been described as a “character study without a hook,” which feels like an impossibility in today’s IP-driven world. “I felt like I could add something to the mix. It is a character study, but that makes the show very hard to write. You have to go deep below the surface to find out what it’s about.”
“I don’t like to agenda write. I don’t like to put messages in it and hit people over the head. I like to follow where the character takes me, so that’s how we work. Sometimes it will feel topical and sometimes it won’t. It’s more like peeking through the window of a person’s life to see their challenges.”
Season 2’s Theme
Unlike case-of-the-week dramas, The Chi doesn’t have “distractions” so it’s vital to “lean into the character moments.”
This means exploring complicated relationships between characters and unpacking them as real people. For the second season, this specifically meant exploring “the four stages of black manhood.”
“From young Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) to teenage Emmett (Jacob Latimore) to young adult Brandon (Jason Mitchell) to adult Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine).
Our theme is fatherhood because you can’t explore black manhood and the violence in Chicago without talking about fatherhood.”
Then, the show could explore the absence of fathers, how to find father figures in other ways, and that could lead to other heavy themes. “We explore gentrification, redemption, forgiveness, single motherhood, and incarceration. I really want to give this idea of black voice regality.”
For Kevin’s character, specifically, Floyd Davis saw a child who had witnessed a violent murder and how they dealt with that trauma. “Little black boys aren’t Teflon. They’re kids. How you deal with it should be in a kid way. It can be subconscious, but we do deal with it.”
The TV writers’ room consisted of former Chicago natives, half men and half women. Floyd Davis actually pushed for filming in South Side this season. “Seven of the ten episodes this season were also directed by women. Usually directing is a male-dominated profession, but these are women telling male-centric stories.”
There was a former police officer for South Side, the father of two young boys, and just “TV writers who could bring their own personal stories to the table.” She added, “There is a through line because we’re all black, so we know the world we’re in and we walk that line.”
No Shortcuts for Longevity
“There’s an explosion in television right now. There’s more television than you can even watch,” joked Floyd Davis. “The fact that this show or any TV show can break the noise is incredible. It’s a great time, but it’s probably even more competitive now than before. When I started, there were only a few places to get a job, but now, people can make TV shows on YouTube. You don’t even have to wait for anybody. It’s a great time for screenwriters, but it’s also a great time to have the privilege of being selective.”
One surprising issue these days is that people are making it too quickly. “People are rising too fast and they’re not learning the craft. That’s happening all over and its’ really going to put people at a disadvantage, long-term. When I came into the business, it was rigorous, There were no shortcuts. Now, they’re becoming showrunners overnight, but the truth is that it’s a huge job and people can break under the weight of it if they don’t know the craft.”
“Television is the land of milk and honey right now. People are grabbing, but they’re not thinking about studying the screenwriting craft. At the end of the day, the people who do put the work in will definitely rise to the top and remain. I don’t know what the industry will look like twenty years from now, but if you work at your craft, you’ll be here.”
Floyd Davis added, “I always tell people to invest the time and energy into it. The same way you would to be a surgeon. Nobody is going to walk into an operating room and say, ‘I’m here. Give me a scalpel.’ It’s the same thing in the writers’ room. You can’t just walk in with a scalpel and start cutting. You’ll kill somebody. You’ll kill stories.”
In addition to The Chi, Floyd Davis is also working on a series called The Cotton Club, which has been temporary stalled due to the Fox-Disney merger. The true story enters the Harlem Renaissance, where black entertainers worked with white gangsters in the 1920s.
In conclusion, Ayanna Floyd Davis advises emerging TV writers ,“the way to be a writer is to sit down and write. Practice makes perfect and all those quotes your mother gave you when you were little. You have to sit down and do the work. Sometimes you have to write five bad scripts to get one good one. Read the screenwriting books, then put the books down.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.
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