Yolonda Ross plays the caring but strict single mom Jada on Emmy award winner Lena Waithe’s Showtime hit The Chi. This season, Jada reveals that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. The show brilliantly reflects the journey and the extra challenges Black women face dealing with the American corporate industrial medical machine. BGN spoke to Yolonda Ross via Zoom recently about her process and how this powerful storyline has impacted and inspired her.
Talk to me about Jada Washington’s biggest challenge this season.
I so appreciate having a storyline that centers the cancer journey. It was something for me to delve deep into. Each season has built up to this one, where I could really go in and do some work. And, getting to talk to actual women who are going through breast cancer. I’ve lost friends to cancer. So many people on our crew have lost people to cancer. Our hair department head lost two sisters, so she was really instrumental in getting Jada through this. Breast cancer is one of those cancers that definitely take your hair out. So, just going through that whole thing on screen was a lot. And making sure that we portrayed these women with realness and dignity was really important to me.
Has playing a Black woman dealing with cancer changed your perspective about living with illness?
No. Sadly, I had it in my head beforehand that there are healthcare disparities, which there are. I don’t think I really, really realized just how significant they can be. I felt like I’ve always had good care. I’m a type one diabetic and there are times when I’ve dealt with doctors who I didn’t think were the greatest. I didn’t think it was a race thing, I just thought it was more them being overwhelmed with other patients and getting into a pattern where they do what they do, and it’s kind of the least of what they do.
In this case, seeing the cancer disparities, and how Black women and white women can be dealt with differently, it was very interesting and very saddening. Statistically, Black women get diagnosed the least and die the most, and that’s out of all races. That’s something that needs to be fixed.
Researching the illness, I spoke to a woman who felt something in her body and thought something was off. She ended up going to three different doctors, three different hospitals, and it wasn’t until the third one that somebody decided to give her an MRI and look at her and listen to her, like really listen to her, not just write her off. “Oh, you have the flu” or “Oh, you’re just dealing with this…” Really? We shouldn’t have to go through that. I had a friend that passed away at 39. She was misdiagnosed. By the time they did diagnose her, the cancer had spread to her liver. So, she had no chance. It’s terrible. This should not be happening.
I’ve started working with a couple of organizations in Chicago: Equal Hope and the Center for Health Equity Transformation. They’re both working to make doctors work with us, for us, understand us, listen to, and give us the care that we deserve.
From cradle to grave, Black women have to deal with people trying to taking away our dignity. We constantly have to have our wits about us, even as we deal with sickness and death, which shouldn’t be.
It shouldn’t be! You have enough to deal with trying to heal the body. Race does enter the equation, which makes no sense. And what you just mentioned about dignity. While researching for this storyline I came across Coils to Locs, which was started by two Black sisters. One of them is a survivor, and unfortunately, the company came to fruition because she was going through hair loss, had good insurance, but couldn’t find a wig with her type of hair in the hospital hair boutiques in her plan. That’s a disparity we’re not even thinking of! When you’re losing your hair, you’re dealing with loss; you’re fragile. Just think about going into one of these boutiques where they are supposed to understand what you’re going through, they’re there to help you make this decision and help you get through this, and they don’t have the right products for you. You know what regular hair shops are like where you go and get a wig uptown wherever. You don’t want to take off whatever’s on your head and show that your hair is gone or it’s going. When you’re dealing with cancer, you don’t want people gawking at you or asking you stupid questions. Wigs are not always made for people without hair. All of that comes into play when all of that is taken away when you don’t have a choice to look like yourself.
What impact has embodying Jada with cancer had on you?
It’s made me look deeper and work to even the playing field for us, to focus on taking care of ourselves and being taken care of. And talking to women about getting mammograms. If you feel something in your body, don’t wait, do not wait because time is of the essence. You don’t know at what stage you are or how aggressive it may be. We are taught to believe the doctors know everything. No, they don’t always know, and they also don’t always listen to you.
What right now is bringing you the most joy?
I love vintage clothes. I met a new friend in Chicago, Mallory Talty, who has a 3,000-square-foot space filled with vintage clothing. And I become characters in these clothes and take photographs. Vintage clothing has lived stories. Yes, just doing that, playing in vintage clothing is my joy place.
Watch The Chi Sundays at 9:00 pm EST on Showtime.
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.