Tosin Morohunfola isn’t quite ready to call his starring role on one of TV’s most anticipated new shows his “big break.”
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking it.
At 29, the Blue Valley High and University of Kansas grad was already a seasoned actor and filmmaker with plays and independent movies in Kansas City, Colorado, Chicago and New York under his belt. He even had a few blink-and-miss-me appearances on network TV shows “Empire” (Fox) and “Chicago Fire” (NBC).
Still, Morohunfola (pronounced morin-falla) enters uncharted territory on Sunday, Jan. 21, when he makes his debut as a regular character — the crime kingpin Trice, on Showtime’s newest series, “The Chi.”
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A coming-of-age tale of residents of Chicago’s South Side, “The Chi” (pronounced “shy”) is the latest creation of Lena Waithe, who in September made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing (for “Master of None”). “The Chi,” which premiered Jan. 7, has been praised by critics for its nuanced portrayal of Waithe’s hometown as more than a caricature of American gun violence.
Morohunfola says he used Kansas City’s East Side as inspiration for his character on Chicago’s South Side.
“Lena was praising me and a couple of actors when we were shooting one of my big scenes,” Morohunfola says. “She was like, ‘I really appreciate you guys keeping it authentically Chicago.’ And I laughed and I told her, ‘That’s funny, because I’m actually from Kansas City.’
“But I think that’s exactly what Lena wanted to hear. It reminded her of the universality of telling a black story like this, that can recalibrate people’s impressions of this lane of the black experience.”
Indeed it’s death (a neighborhood shooting) that sets “The Chi” in motion, but life that keeps the wheels spinning. One character is a chef trying to work his way up the ladder at a hipster restaurant. Another is a rambunctious middle schooler trying to figure out how to approach his school crush. The series’ opening scene follows a rascally teen riding his bicycle around the neighborhood listening to Chicago native Chance the Rapper.
“There’s a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’” Morohunfola says. “She talks about how when we are fed narratives that are just one small perspective of the world, it corrupts us. It forces stereotypical thinking and shorthands the way we regard each other. Now more than ever we need stories like ‘The Chi’ that are full, three-dimensional and that can subvert our expectations and retrain the way we think about a people.”
Since his KU days, Morohunfola has pushed for diverse storytelling and social commentary.
In 2008, he founded the Multicultural Theater Initiative, a theater troupe dedicated to providing more plays and roles for KU’s students of color.
In 2015, Morohunfola, also an independent filmmaker, directed and starred in “On Sight,” a police crime thriller examining the tension between police and black men.
“Tosin has always been down for the cause,” says Kevin Willmott, an associate professor of film and media studies at KU and himself an acclaimed filmmaker. “That’s what college is about. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns and instead of complaining about something, make it happen. The group of students he put together really shook things up and created opportunities for a variety of actors on our campus to express themselves.”
Willmott was the man behind the screenplay for another Chicago-centered project, the 2015 Spike Lee-directed “Chiraq.” Recognizing Morohunfola’s talent early on, Willmott recruited him as a lead actor for his 2013 sci-fi film “Destination Planet Negro.”
“Tosin’s an exceptionally talented guy and just someone who works hard and has a great spirit about him. If Tosin wasn’t around, I probably couldn’t have done that film.”
The work ethic is reflected in his theater resume. Morohunfola has starred in more than a dozen plays in Kansas City alone, most recently as Walter Lee in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2017 production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” but also at the Coterie, New Theatre Restaurant, the Living Room, Unicorn Theatre and Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
“Kansas City is just a wonderful training ground,” Morohunfola says. “Which isn’t to say it’s not also its own estimable, professional landscape, but it’s also a place where you can learn and hone who you are as an artist and kind of shape yourself.”
It was after three years of honing on the KC theater circuit that Morohunfola moved to Chicago in 2013: “It seemed like the smartest next leap. I wanted to move to a bigger city with TV opportunities, because that’s a thing that isn’t in KC.”
Another thing that isn’t in KC? “Diversity,” says Morohunfola.
“There’s room for improvement, yeah,” he says. “I think there are a couple theaters who are doing a good job, who are actively trying to diversify not only their seasons but their casting goals, and I really respect that. But I do think we have room to grow.” He points to the emergence of the Black Repertory Theater as an exciting development.
“Ultimately it comes down to the artistic staff at the theaters around KC and their patron bases’ willingness to diversify,” he says. “People will participate where they feel welcomed.”
Nowadays Morohunfola has made himself welcome in L.A. He says Chicago was “the perfect mid-sized city” for him in 2013, one that offered a lesser risk of being “swallowed in anonymity” than a move to New York or L.A.
But late last year, with “The Chi” about to premiere, Morohunfola found the courage to make the leap to the West Coast: “This role gave me the confidence and the credit to make the move. This business is all about momentum, and I want to capitalize on the momentum I have now.”
“I couldn’t be more excited. It feels like it’s my time.”
Where and what to watch
▪ “The Chi” airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime and can be streamed on the Showtime apps.
▪ What does Morohunfola also recommend? “I just started watching ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.’ It’s incredible, just great television. I’ve also been watching ‘The Good Place.’ There’s this show called ‘SMILF’ that I like. And ‘Search Party’ on TBS.”
Favorites in KC
“If I’ve got people coming with me to the show, I’m going to drop them off at Q39 or Oklahoma Joe’s for burnt ends or a Z Man,” Morohunfola says. He adds with a laugh: “And most likely they’re going to sleep through the show. Afterward I would go to Snow & Co. They’ve got the great cocktails. I love that place.”