Fans of Netflix's Master of None and Showtime's The Chi certainly had a reason to be excited about a whole new show on Tuesday night. Lena Waithe made a cameo on This Is Us and people were ecstatic to see the beloved actor in an unexpected capacity. She played a worker at a dog shelter where Kate went to browse for a new furry friend — an experience that proved to be more difficult than Kate anticipated given all the baggage she carried about her father's death, which has largely been the focus of the NBC drama thus far.
Waithe, though her appearance was short-lived and only garnered her a few minutes of screen time, was a welcome addition to an episode that was emotionally draining before it even started. Her cheerful spirit was as reassuring to Kate as it was to viewers, giving them something to get excited about as they anxiously waited to see what would become of Jack.
Though many fans were surprised to see her, Waithe's appearance on the hit NBC drama was announced days in advance, allowing for a hefty amount of anticipation to build. Entertainment Weekly reported Waithe's guest role nearly a week ago, though few details were available about what her time on the show would actually entail.
Lovers of TV are well-versed in Waithe's work by now. For her work on Master of None, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing last year, and it was likely just the first accolade we'll watch her collect as her career goes on. The Emmy was awarded for her work on the outstanding Thanksgiving episode of Master of None, in which she and showrunner Aziz Ansari delivered a tumultuous journey worthy of This Is Us itself. The largely autobiographical episode focused on Denise, Waithe's character, coming out as gay to her mother, and dealing with the resulting dynamic over a series of Thanksgiving holidays. It thrust the important and often disregarded experiences of black lesbians into the mainstream spotlight, and did so with Waithe at the wheel. She picked up many a fan then, so it's unsurprising that people were excited to see her on Tuesday.
Her This Is Us role was a little different than what fans have seen on Master of None. Waithe spoke about her Thanksgiving MoN episode to Vulture saying, "[The episode] became more and more autobiographical as we got deeper into the episode, which I really welcomed. I think there’s definitely a difference between myself and Denise, and I try to separate her because we’re so intertwined, but because that story is so specific to my experience, we leaned into it," Waithe told the outlet. "We don’t claim for it to be everyone’s story, but I think we really wanted to be vulnerable, which Aziz does all the time. So it gives us the freedom to go, 'This was my experience.'"
And Waithe is just keeping the punches coming. Her latest venture, Showtime's The Chi, has debuted to rave reviews. The drama focuses on young men in Chicago, Waithe's hometown, and aims to dispel stereotypes surrounding them. "I think [people] sort of assume Chicago is just one big jungle, and that little black boys are born with a gun in their right hand and a pile of drugs in their left, and that's just not true," Waithe, who is the creator and executive producer of the show, told NPR. "All little black children are born with the same amount of hope and love and joy as every other kid."
Given Waithe's strengths as a creator, her appearance on This Is Us felt right. She's all about telling necessary stories that are unique, nuanced, and poignant, and the showrunners of This Is Us do the same, even if the stories often largely differ from those that Waithe tells. At their cores, all of these actors, writers and artists are all about the human experience, making Waithe the perfect guest star for this emotional episode.