The queens of ‘Queen Sugar’ talk about the power of their roles: 1-on-1 with Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner
Fans of Queen Sugar know that when it comes to the Bordelon siblings, the drama is real but so is the love.
The hit show has been renewed for a third season on OWN, led by its pioneering creator, Ava DuVernay, and network namesake, Oprah Winfrey.
I got an opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Queen Sugar stars Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley during the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) convention, in New Orleans, LA where the show is filmed.
They were nothing short of black girl magical.
Both actresses greeted us with smiles and hugs on a boat tour down the Mississippi River and into Chalmette Battlefield, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Gardner and Wesley spoke proudly of being ambassadors for the National Park Foundation’s #FindYourPark campaign, which encourages people of all races and ethnicities to see America’s parks as their own (“Camping isn’t just for white folks!” they joked), while also opening up about their characters on “Queen Sugar” and the importance of diverse black experiences being seen on television.
TG: What was your reaction when you heard Queen Sugar was being renewed for a third season? Who did you have to call first?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I called my family first because I wanted to let them know to prepare- because I missed them a lot and being away is hard for me. But I wanted to celebrate with them because this whole project for me has been about my family and my personal family. Sharing what I watched my whole life, it’s been my dream to bring that to completion.
TG: What is it like working with Ava DuVernay, as a woman? I know it must feel like a luxury to have a black woman directing and also connecting with you.
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: It never stops being a bit of a dream come true. It’s almost hard to put into words what it means because of what she means to so many people in the country, let alone this industry.
As a black woman in the business, she’s been a hero of mine for a long time, so it never stops being phenomenally inspiring. The longer I know her, she becomes more and more of a colleague.
And so the shock begins to wear off but the joy doesn’t. And the “mind being blown about it” doesn’t wear off- my mind is still blown.
TG: How do you think the fans will react to the evolution of your character Charley?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I’m so excited for her journey this season we just completed. I didn’t know until like a week and a half ago where she was going and really I didn’t even know until a few days before wrapping where she was going.
So I was as much in the process of discovery this season as the fans. I’m really grateful for the kind of track that the writers have taken with her.
They’ve sort of dived into her inner world in a way that she didn’t really expect. I’m just glad to uncover more layers of what’s going on with her.
Why she is the way that she is and see through that emotional reality of losing your life, like she did in season one. Having to redefine herself and really self define for the first time. That process can not be anything but messy.
So we’re seeing a whole lot of mess but a whole lot of necessary mess.
TG: And it’s so real. There was one moment where Charley was about to hook up with someone else but because of not having finalized the divorce she stopped. Do you think that might be sort of an inspiration or affirmation of the sanctity of marriage in the way that the culture talks about it?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I think that for Charley what it points to more is her own need for security. Her own knowing what’s important to her.
I think she started a family extremely early, she was got married very young and it was a huge part of her identity. She knows what that has meant to her and what her commitment has been even though that wasn’t the same for her ex.
— Dawn-Lyen Gardner (@dawnlyen) August 10, 2017
TG: You’re both women who care [openly] about black issues and issues like [inspiring people to see America’s parks as their own]. Why is that important to you as actresses be invested… and show the world it’s something you care about?
Rutina Wesley: I think it’s important because we have platforms to do so. If I have a platform where there’s a chance you might say something and people will listen, then you have a responsibility.
I was intimidated first by it, playing Nova, but then I just embraced it. Because even though I’m not a journalist, I do have a platform. When I do speak up, people do want to listen to what I’m saying about all the issues. And when in doubt it’s also okay to say you don’t know.
And I think young people who are living through us, there’s a lot of little Charley’s and Nova’s and Ralph Angel’s out there. They start to have a sense of self and they’re like ‘Well I think this thing about our president’ or ‘I think this thing about what I just saw.’ And it helps them to start to formulate their own ideas…
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: It’s always been really personal because I also saw this disconnect between what I saw represented in the media, which felt like under-representation, misrepresentation or just inauthentic representation, and what I saw at home, and what I saw in my community and what I saw in my neighborhood, which was so full of life and beauty and dimension and complexity and could not understand why wasn’t I seeing it there and realizing, at very specific points in my life.
Those who don’t have any connection with black life, don’t know that this exists and don’t get to see that. So they can only rely on whatever’s out there to tell them who and what we are. It is such a specific and deep need to be a voice for what I have witnessed. [I] want to share with those who may not know it and say “yes you matter and your worthy and you’re beautiful.”
TG: I want to ask you a little bit about Nova, I’m personally inspired because she’s a journalist and she’s somebody who’s woke. What do you think it means for little girls to see Nova on screen? Everything about you, everything that you bring, why do you think that matters for girls to see that on T.V?
Rutina Wesley: It matters because when I was a little girl and I saw Viola Davis she looked like me, she was a beacon of light for me, she was hope.
I saw her and Angela Bassett and said ‘Well if they can do it than I can do it.’ But now we’ve evolved… and now we have Nova on screen, which is a character like we’ve haven’t seen before.
I’m still overwhelmed because there’s a lot of sisters young and old that come up to me being like ‘I am Nova and thank you because I’m a mess, I’m beautiful. You can’t pin me down, I’m a lot of things.’
For people to embrace all the deliciousness about them- and I say delicious because your flaws and all are make you who you are…
I’m thankful that I can now be a role model for little brown girls and boys because they’re now seeing things familiar to them. They’re seeing their aunt, the really cool auntie that lets you do what you want and isn’t going to tell your mama. And you can talk to her.
It’s beautiful being on a show where people see themselves.
Also it’s our relationship, because we are so comfortable are like family. People watch it and see ‘oh they like each other’ that makes you want to watch more because you see us go at it, but at the end of the day you know our foundation of our show is love.
In order to be what it is, it has to start from love so it’s important to know that. A lot of kids are like “You must hate each other!” I’m like no, no I don’t.
There’s no hate anywhere, because in order to do that [argue] you have to come from love, to care that much.
Learn more about the #FindYourPark campaign at findyourpark.com and nationalparks.org. “Queen Sugar” appears on OWN Wednesdays at 10pm ET.
Natasha S. Alford is Deputy Editor at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter at @NatashaSAlford for the latest news, entertainment and pop culture updates.