By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Classically trained actor Curtiss Cook, who plays Otis “Douda” Perry on the popular Showtime series “The Chi,” says this about his polarizing character: “Maybe some people don’t like him or don’t trust him, but that’s life.” Evgeny Milkovich, Courtesy photo

Criminal mastermind Otis “Douda” Perry has returned to the streets of Chicago and no one is safe in season five of the hit Showtime series “The Chi.”

Only time will tell what’s up the sleeve of the gangster-politician who always manages to keep the city in a chokehold – but the actor behind the villain, Curtiss Cook, promises “things that will rock some people’s boats.”

While the show, created by Chicagoan and Emmy-winning producer Lena Waithe, takes place on the South Side of Chicago, Cook said the show resonates because “there’s a South Side Chicago in every city.”

The actor is not wrong. Local comedian Dru Burks, 48, who manages the Guild Theater in Oak Park is among the show’s fans. “Growing up in Oak Park, it was about survival and making a better life for ourselves,” he said. “The only difference between here and South Side Chicago is the weather.”

The OBSERVER spoke to the classically trained actor by phone from his home in New York. Before calling shots on “The Chi” or lighting up Broadway stages in “The Lion King,” the self-proclaimed “knucklehead kid from Dayton, Ohio” was an ambitious single father sacrificing to make it in Hollywood. 

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How does it feel to be one the most polarizing characters on television?

A: I relish in it. Douda isn’t just a businessman by day and a gangster by night – he’s a three-dimensional character. When this opportunity was presented to me, there were [a lot of unknowns] about the character. Each day I come to set, the writers challenge me with each layer revealed. Maybe some people don’t like him or don’t trust him, but that’s life.

Q: Last season, Douda led a campaign to defund the police and started Community Protection, which saw qualified citizens sent to handle mental health calls instead of cops. As a Black actor, what’d you think of this storyline?

A: That was a courageous storyline for the writers to tell – and for my character to be the catalyst of that is major. I felt a lot of rage and helplessness over what was happening in our world. It was powerful to be on national television as my character and say, “We don’t need you anymore, we can do this ourselves.” Before our show aired, I thought a city would have tried something like [the community protection program], but I think it’s important for art to show the things that real-life people are afraid to attempt.

Q: Is that the secret of “The Chi?”

A: That’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on – it’s like lightning in a bottle. What I do know is that the show is unapologetically Black and leads with love. It leads with inclusion and diversity – not because that is a “buzzword,” but because we don’t shy away from tough topics.

Q: “The Chi” hasn’t shied away from telling LGBTQIA+ stories. This season, Trig is in a relationship with a Black trans woman. Why is this an important story to tell?

A: I don’t really know the importance of it other than it’s real – it’s life reflected. It’ll be beautiful when we get to the point where it’s not a question but it’s just about two people falling in love. It is important to show all forms of love – as messy, wonderful, and as clear as we possibly can.

Q: How is it working with show creator Lena Waithe?

A: It’s an honor to be on the show that’s created by such a powerful Black woman. I got to work with her [on set in season 3]. She’s definitely collaborative. There’s something special about working for a Black woman because as a Black man there are things that I may overlook. Black women help me approach things from a different angle, which makes the show much more appealing. I’m just so grateful to Lena for creating this project.

Q: I want to delve into your background a bit. You were the first American to receive a scholarship to the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. How was that experience?

A: It was traumatic. I was one of maybe six Black people – and they weren’t Americans. The Americans there were from more of an elite background. They weren’t on scholarship. I was a Black boy who was given an opportunity because I could sing, dance, and act. I realized how fortunate I was – and how much work it was going to be.

Q: You’ve been very open about your time as a single father of three and being evicted from your apartment at one point. Why did you choose to be so transparent about your story?

A: It’s interesting that you asked that, because when I first talked about that I wasn’t thinking about transparency, I was just talking about my life. And when I was going through it, I wasn’t thinking about persevering, I was just living. I was in it. But the beauty is that we made it through that part of our lives and never looked back.

Q: Have you gotten any feedback since sharing your story?

A: I try not to read the comments, but if my story helps somebody to know that they’re not alone and that they can get through it – then I welcome it.

Q: What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your own journey?

A: When I came back to America [from drama school in London], I was speaking in an English accent. My drama teacher – a Black woman – pulled me aside. She looked me dead in the face and said, “Never forget who you are and where you come from.” I didn’t understand what she was saying at the time, but it lived with me. Once I realized what she was saying, I realized it’s OK to be me. It’s OK to be this poor Black kid from Dayton who’s had these experiences. It’s OK. That’s my superpower.