“We’re at a point right now where Black voices are really speaking out. It may not feel like it, but we are being heard,” says Birgundi Baker, who stars as Kiesha Williams in Showtime’s The Chi. “I think my job, specifically, is to speak through art.”
Baker caught the acting bug after attending her aunt’s shows at Juilliard, though she has been involved in the arts from a young age. She got her start playing a young Carol Hardaway on the hit drama series Empire and later had recurring roles on Chicago Med and Black Lightning before landing her current role on The Chi. The drama series, created by Lena Waithe, tells the stories of residents of Chicago’s South Side, whose lives are intertwined by the Windy City. Season three sees Baker elevated to a lead role, and much of the season surrounds her character’s disappearance.
“I hope we can speak more on our missing women, our missing Black girls,” she says. “I’m hoping that we can reopen some of these cases because there are so many girls that have gone missing that we don’t talk about, and I hope that we can just do better when it comes to protecting our women.”
Baker spoke with L’Officiel USA on playing a girl who goes missing, colorism in Hollywood, and the power of telling Black stories.
L'Officiel: Tell us a bit about your character Kiesha—what she’s like and what drew you to her.
Birgundi Baker: Kiesha is a teenager, she is an athlete, she is a sister, she’s a daughter, she’s been a girlfriend.
The thing I love about Kiesha is that she’s so familiar. People tell me all the time that they’ve been in positions that Kiesha’s been in before or they know someone that reminds them of Kiesha. She’s like the homegirl that a lot of people can identify with.
Season three is going to show even more of her strength and, not just Kiesha, but what many young African American women go through.
L'O: Can you talk a bit about what we see Kiesha go through in the third season as she gets ready to head off to university?
BB: Kiesha was already on edge as we saw in episode one because she was transitioning to college, and was planning to go and run track in California. We see her go to the bus stop, doing her normal thing, and she gets taken. We end the episode with her being missing.
What I love about the journey we see Kiesha go through is that we’re actually telling a broader story of thousands and thousands of girls in Chicago, in the US, and in the world.
L'O: This season we also see the show’s creator, Lena Waithe, join The Chi as a new character. What was it like to work with her, first as a writer and then as a fellow actor?
BB: She is truly an inspiration. She has really taught us how to stand in our truth because she knows who she is. She knows exactly the message that she wants to get out, and she does it unfiltered. As a queer Black woman, I think she has been an outstanding example for all of us as actors.
L'O: How did you prepare for getting in the headspace of a girl who goes missing?
BB: I had to do a lot of research. A lot of things that Kiesha goes through when she goes missing and even when she comes back I had never been through before. There were some topics that I reached out to family and friends about, that provided some insight. Some things I just had to research. I listened to a lot of interviews and looked up a lot of cases of missing Black girls. A lot of meditation, too, because you can have the information, but when it comes to getting the character in your body and really trying to experience these things through the character, it takes a lot of meditation and a lot of imagination.
L'O: What role does meditation and spirituality play in getting in touch with your characters?
BB: I feel like first there’s education: Do you have the knowledge and the tools of what acting is and what it is to craft a character? That comes from school, and I think the next part of it is spirituality because you are pretending to be somebody else. That means you have to shed your thoughts, your feelings, and your tendencies. You are living inside someone else’s body, and that is spirituality, that is meditation. The character doesn’t just jump in your body, you have to reach out to that character and open your mind up to being someone that you’re not.
L'O: The show centers around telling Black stories. How do you think The Chi tells those stories in a way that is different from how we’re used to seeing them?
BB: I haven’t seen many shows where Black families had a lot of colors, they mostly just show the hardships. I think The Chi does a great job of showing all the colors that go into Black families and Black friendships. Like, it’s not all hard, it can be very fun, and you protect one another and go hard for one another. You’ll see that in the way that they look for Kiesha and the things they go through to find her, and I think the show does a great job of sprinkling in the beauty of Black love and Black families.
L'O: What was it like to work on a show like this around so many talented Black actors?
BB: Oh my gosh, it’s truly been a dream. It’s been a dream. I was telling someone today that there was a time where we didn’t see a lot of Black people on the screen at one time, and that now on The Chi we’re not only seeing a full cast of African Americans but we’re seeing deep-complected people, and that’s a whole different thing from just saying, oh this is a Black cast. Then we get into the topic of colorism, and I’m just really proud of the way that Lena was unafraid to cast deep-complected actors. I think it’s time for us to not be afraid to show color and Black faces.
It’s been so inspiring working with actors that are more experienced than me. I was watching Alex Hibbert, who plays my brother, in Moonlight before we even auditioned for The Chi, so it’s been inspiring to work with actors that I look up to.