LOS ANGELES, March 4 (UPI) -- Lena Waithe created the new BET series Twenties, premiering Wednesday, based on her career and romantic struggles when she moved to Los Angeles.
Jonica T. Gibbs plays Hattie, a character loosely based on Waithe.
"When I got to Los Angeles, all I had was my drive and determination, and my love for movies and television," Waithe said during a recent Television Critics Association panel discussion. "I was a queer black girl who didn't know how to pretend to be straight, and I was also very specific about what I wanted to do."
Waithe found writing jobs on TV shows like Bones and Nickelodeon's How to Rock. She also co-created Hello Cupid with Numa Perrier and Ashley Blaine Featherson. As a co-star on Aziz Ansari's Netflix series Master of None, writing the episode "Thanksgiving" won her an Emmy.
Now, Waithe has created two currently running series, Showtime's The Chi and BET's Boomerang, and wrote the movie Queen & Slim. Twenties' Hattie would love a resume like that, but when the show begins, she starts work as a television writer's personal assistant.
"People would say, 'What do you want to do?'" Waithe recalled of breaking into the industry. "[I said], 'I want to write half-hour television. I want to write single-camera comedies and stuff.' People just kind of took to me because I was very clear about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go."
Hattie's best friends, Marie (Christina Elmore) and Nia (Gabrielle Graham), also are based on the friends Waithe made in Los Angeles.
"I really just found my people that were also kind of weirdos like me who liked TV and film, who watched movies with the director's commentary playing," Waithe said. "[We'd] enjoy going to the ArcLight even though we couldn't really afford it. All that stuff kinda pops up in the show."
Growing up, Waithe did not see many black lesbian characters on television. She said playing Denise on Master of None opened the door for creating Hattie.
"I had no idea that me playing that character would set the stage for Hattie one day," Waithe said. "Sometimes it happens that way. Sometimes, I have to be my own revolution."
Waithe also cited actors Wanda Sykes and Samira Wiley playing openly gay characters before her. She added that she considers herself masculine-presenting and wanted to represent her subset of the LGBTQ spectrum on Twenties.
"Yes, there have been queer characters before, but I've never seen a masculine-presenting lesbian girl who likes kicks, who wears vintage tees, who loves Whitney Houston, who's got her two straight best friends," Waithe said. "My experience was I'm a lesbian surrounded by straight people, which is fine, but I want to write about that."
Hattie will entertain flirtations from both gay and straight women. Waithe says she dated both in her 20s.
"Sometimes straight women were a little thrown off," Waithe said. "They're like, 'You're giving me masculine energy, but you're a girl. I kind of like it. I don't know.' Half the straight women I'm dating have come to me."
Twenties also pays homage to the television shows Waithe watched growing up. Waithe named her production company Hillman Grad. Hillman was the fictional college in the sitcom A Different World. She also hired Different World producer Susan Fales-Hill to executive produce Twenties.
"They always say don't meet your heroes, but if your hero is Susan Fales-Hill, I highly recommend it," Waithe said. "We sat down, we bonded, we vibed. I told her, 'I got this show that if it ever goes, I want you to run it.' She was like, 'Alright, I'll maybe do that.'"
Waithe was grateful Fales-Hill ultimately decided to produce Twenties. The show was in development at Hulu and TBS before finding its home at BET. Waithe wouldn't give up.
"Twenties is the show that I wouldn't let die because I don't believe that a queer black girl belongs in the back of the bus," Waithe said. "I think that she deserves to be the protagonist of her own story."
Twenties airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on BET.