CHICAGO — On the current season of Showtime’s “The Chi,” the most level-headed adult is also one of the show’s newest additions. Played by Jasmine Davis, Imani is a beautiful, gentle and stable presence amid the chaos around her. She is the loyal girlfriend of Luke James’ Trig, and is there by his side to help him right to some long-festering wrongs.
She is also the show’s first transgender character.
Originally from Chicago — “I grew up on the South Side near Kenwood High School” — this is Davis’ major debut and it is the breakout performance of the season, channelling an innate self-confidence with a willingness to be vulnerable. One hopes casting directors are taking note; Davis has real talent and a steely knack for action scenes.
But when her agent and manager initially brought the role to her attention, she was hesitant about pursuing it.
“I wasn’t fully out yet,” Davis said. “And I didn’t know if I really wanted to come out (as a trans person) because of everything that was going on in the world.
“I have such a good management team and they are so supportive. But they understood that I was going to have to deal with the backlash by myself no matter what support I had from people. So they said, ‘Please just read for the part. And if you like it, do it. If not, it doesn’t matter — we’ll still send you out to audition for cis roles.
“So I read the script and I liked it. I prayed on it and I left it up to the universe — if I get a call-back, I’ll take it. Before this, I thought my big coming out role was going to be on ‘Supergirl’ for the trans role. I was up for that and I was one audition away and they chose the other girl.” (The part of the superhero Dreamer ultimately went to Nicole Maines.)
Even as more television shows are finally casting trans actors, “I don’t want to be looked at as a trans actor,” Davis said, “the way people talked about Black people back in the day: ‘That’s a Black actor.’ No, I’m an actor who happens to play whatever role that speaks to me. And ‘Supergirl’ spoke to me. And this role, Imani, she spoke to me.
“And I’m actually glad I’m on ‘The Chi’ because it’s a very real story and I was terrified because so much of Imani is like Jasmine.”
When asked to describe the character, Davis called her “a badass, she’s unapologetic, she’s a goddess. She’s this energetic being who knew what she wanted to be and went after her dreams at all costs: She’s going to be herself. She’s going to live free and manifest that happiness, which is why she ended up with a guy (Trig, played by Luke James) who just loves her to love her.”
Imani also has a high emotional intelligence, can quickly size up a situation and is not to be underestimated. She and Trig probably have the healthiest romantic relationship on the show, rooted in mutual respect and tenderness. “She has a mate in Trig — they’re like Bonnie and Clyde — and she no longer has to worry about who has her back,” Davis said.
Show creator Lena Waithe said that when Davis auditioned, she was struck by the actor’s combination of strength and softness. “I thought that was so important for the character … I really want to show Imani in a loving relationship. No relationship is perfect, no relationship is without conflict. But I wanted to show a character that really loved her and saw her as his equal and his partner and I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that the character happens to be trans — that’s not the first thing this character would tell you about herself. She’s just a woman trying to help her man and trying to help others.
“I’ve been wanting to do this since Season 1,” Waithe added, “but I couldn’t — no one saw it, not one got it. But there are Black people in the trans community, why would we not show that?”
Waithe was also intentional about hiring a trans person for the role.
“I don’t think people in the transgender community have as many opportunities to be in all kinds of shows and to stretch and to hone their craft and the only way you can become a good actor is by acting,” she said. “I want to see people who are trans nominated for Oscars and Emmys. They deserve to have roles on quote-unquote ‘prestigious shows,’ so I’m trying to do my part.”
The Netflix documentary “Disclosure,” which focuses on Hollywood and trans representation, offers additional reasons to cast trans roles with trans actors, including the idea that trans characters should actually look like real trans people, not merely cisgender actors attempting an approximation.
Davis agrees. “Right now, I totally do … it’s very important for visibility. If you’re seeing someone who represents you and your community, it really helps. Because I didn’t see a lot of that growing up.”
Davis got her start acting in her early 20s, first by taking classes at the Artistic Home (which is also a theater company) and later at Second City where she studied improv. She has been based in Los Angeles for the past five years and said she was unaware of recent allegations of racism at the comedy theater. Though Davis had a positive experience during her time at Second City, she noted: “I’m a very bubble-type of person — I lived in a bubble for so long in my life, if there was some racism I probably didn’t recognize it, to be honest. But I’m not surprised. Chicago is a very segregated place and I used to feel that; sometimes I would be the only Black girl in those spaces. I was literally the only minority in my class.”
She laughed when talking about the irony of moving to LA to pursue her acting career, only to land her big break on a show that shoots in her hometown.
“Going back to Chicago, there were all these memories, all this anxiety. Everyday I went to work, I felt safe. But when I wasn’t at work I would remember certain things,” she said.
But she was also able to view the city through different eyes. “I found I had a new appreciation for Chicago that I didn’t have when I used to live there, because I guess I was going through so much there. And when I came back for work I realized, you don’t have to live here, you can just come visit. Whenever I get rich enough, I wouldn’t mind having a place here.”
Davis was open about her early trepidation about the role and what it means for her own visibility. How have the past few weeks been for her since season three began?
“I still have a bit of anxiety that I’m working through,” she said.
“This is a whole new life for me. I’m able to be more vulnerable in general because I don’t have this thing that I used to hide behind. And now that people know, I basically feel like I’m starting over in life. I’ll be starting over in dating, I’ll be starting over in my career, I’ll be starting over with some of my friendships.
“I lost a lot of friends and yeah … ” She pauses. “I’m just processing one day at a time and realizing I’m human and things like this happen and I’m going to get through it just like I got through it like everything else.”
Season 3 of “The Chi” airs 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime.