Jonica T. Gibbs on Playing Lena Waithe (Sort of) in Twenties
The Twenties actress Jojo Gibbs talks about moving cross-country for a career in Hollywood, playing a version of Lena Waithe on TV, and the relief of turning 30.
There’s a scene in Twenties, Lena Waithe’s latest television project, premiering on BET, where the main character, Hattie, vehemently disagrees with her two best friends.
They’re driving around town together, and Hattie asks her friends to explain why they like a currently airing show helmed by a black creative (a Mona Scott-Young type responsible for shows with titles such as My Bae and Coco’s Butter). “I like that it’s about black love,” her friend Nia answers. “And I am just glad it exists,” her other bestie Marie echoes.
“Those are not good reasons to like a show,” Hattie tells them. “We need to support black shit!” Marie replies. Hattie claps back with, “No. We need to support good shit that just happens to be black.”
Twenties is a series that’s been a long time coming—Waithe created a pilot and filmed it in three parts for YouTube in 2013, long before the Emmy-winning turn on Master of None that made her a household name. The show was picked up and tossed back and forth between a couple of networks until it landed on BET.
Hattie is based on Waithe, and played by Jonica “Jojo” Gibbs, who bears a resemblance to the show’s creator insofar as, on this version of Twenties, she presents more masculine of center. “The direction of the show has definitely changed,” Gibbs explained one afternoon in the W offices. “Once they finally got the green light to do the show, they were like, ‘Let’s really delve deep into the imagery of showing a queer black woman in all her glory, not trying to mute it or water it down.’ So, Hattie is so unique. She’s not a character I’ve ever seen on television before. I’ve seen lesbians, but beyond Cleo from Set It Off, you don’t see masculine-presenting lesbians often,” she said.
Gibbs was born in South Carolina and grew up with her great-grandparents in Hampstead, North Carolina. After graduating from college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism, she bounced around the mid-Atlantic and the South, holding down jobs in Washington, D.C.; crashing on a friend’s couch in Savannah, Georgia, (and sneaking into classes at SCAD to learn more about acting and filmmaking); and eventually landing in Los Angeles, which is where she’s been for the past five years. “I initially went to L.A. for acting, but it was like, In the meantime, I’m gonna do stand-up,” Gibbs said. “I still do stand-up, but it was my way of creating space for myself. And I’m finally, finally doing what I want to do.”
When Gibbs moved out west, she and her best friend started their own production company and made a web series. As part of the project, they sent out goodie bags to a handful of black creatives and executives around town. Waithe was one of them. After a few DMs back and forth, Waithe and Gibbs got to talking about the showrunner’s next project. Waithe asked Gibbs if she would like to audition for Twenties.
“Then we get on the phone and she was like, ‘I don’t know what you can do, but you can come by, and when you don’t get it, you can come to set and check out the real actors.’ But it was the perfect type of humility because it made me want to prove something. I was like, ‘This is for me, this is my role,’ ” she said. “At the time, I didn’t have an agent or a manager, so it was my first audition ever. I was like, This is your moment. You have to capitalize on it because how do you get an audition like this without an agent or a manager? That shit might never happen again.”
Now, she’s starring in her first lead role as Hattie on Twenties. Hattie, like a young Waithe—and a young Gibbs, to some extent, too—is an aspiring television writer. She’s flanked by her best friends, Nia, the woo-woo yoga teacher and aspiring actress, and Marie, the film executive who’s got herself together, or so it would appear. Many of their conversations take place on the studio lot, in between breaks at work.
“Hattie, I think, is motivated by appearing to have it together,” Gibbs explained. “Internally she knows that she doesn’t. However, Hattie is very confident and unique and sure of herself, sometimes to a fault. To a degree where her friends sometimes have to get her back in alignment. She’s like, ‘It’s the black Renaissance. I’m black, I’m queer, I’m a woman, they should be hitting me up.’ But that’s not how it works!” Gibbs said with a laugh. “She’s superconfident, but lost. And you can be confidently lost sometimes. That’s her superpower, too, though. She walks into any room like, I’m supposed to be here. But the figuring out how to be there part is where she falls short.”
Gibbs said she could identify with Hattie as a character that represents a chapter of her life, but not the entirety of it. “She’s one of those people that’s unashamed,” Gibbs said. “Hattie’s like, ‘Yeah I sleep on my best friend’s futon, but I’m still gonna pull girls and I’m still gonna be fly and still gonna be sure of myself.’ I don’t know how you can be confidently broke, but some people do it,” the actress said with a laugh. “Hattie does it.”
Twenties may surprise you with how funny it really is, with the quips of dialogue back and forth between Hattie, Nia, and Marie, and its commentary on what it means to be a black creative in Hollywood today. “What I love the most is the stylization of the show. In terms of the little nuances, we’ll play a Frank Sinatra song—or there’s a scene where my castmate does a monologue. Even the background music, it’s not something that’s typically put on black shows. It’s more like, Leave it to Beaver–type music or old-school jazz,” Gibbs explained. “The vibe, to me, is something black people haven’t been allowed to do, and I really appreciate that the most. Everybody that was involved brought their own funk to it.”
The series is also sure to draw comparisons to Insecure, or even The L Word: Generation Q, but it is a refreshing take on being broke in your twenties and trying to make it in a big city (and in service of not spoiling the surprise, let’s just say the handful of cameos from the who’s-who of Black Hollywood don’t hurt.)
“Hattie is someone that is so confident in being [herself] that you don’t even think about [her sexuality], really. It’s like, Okay, she’s got on some fly ass shoes and a dope ass outfit, but she’s just dope, you know what I’m saying?” Gibbs said. “I think people should mind their business. If we ain’t fucking, why do you care who somebody is having sex with? Sexual orientation should be the last thing that you question when you’re trying to decide if somebody is meant to be a part of your life. I like the fact that they normalize it on the show. She has two friends and she’s trying to figure it out, just like you. She just so happens to be gay.”
“My twenties were a learning process! A lot of heartache,” Gibbs admitted her personal experience in her twenties were highlighted by heartache. She described it as “a learning process.”
“It was the first time I got my heart broken. For the first time in my life, I realized that heartbreak can be physical. That teaches you how to treat other people. Not to take good people for granted,” she said.
“The most challenging part, for me, was overcoming failures—or what I perceived to be failures at that time. All throughout college, high school, middle school, if I tried to do something, I got it,” Gibbs went on. “If I wanted it, whether getting on the basketball team or running for student body vice president, I found that I was likable enough that I could figure it out. Then I graduated college—and applying for jobs and going through the whole process, and not getting it at the end, or being broke. That shit was hard.”
Now that she’s 30, Gibbs said she doesn’t miss the turmoil of her twenties, but she does miss some of the fun parts. “I miss going out on a Friday after work. I can’t even drink alcohol like I used to, my body won’t allow it,” she joked. “When you’re in your twenties you can bounce back a lot easier. Now, Fridays, I’m like, I’m about to watch 90 Day Fiancé and chill.”
The biggest lesson Gibbs learned from working with Waithe was, “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”
“You never know when an opportunity will come, and if you’re constantly working on your craft and constantly doing whatever you can do to move yourself forward, when that moment comes, you’ll capitalize on it. Even on set,” she added. “I saw [Lena] as a coach. She wasn’t on set all the time, but when she was, I was on my shit. I was gonna make sure I knew my lines, that whatever she wants me to give, I’m giving it. Work on your craft, and when the opportunity comes, you’ll be able to make the most out of it.”
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