A Shadow and Act Sit-Down With Oprah Winfrey & the Cast of 'Queen Sugar'
Though we seem to be in what has been termed a new renaissance in Black film and television, some narratives stand above the others. One such series is Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” Based on the 2014 novel by Natalie Baszile, “Queen Sugar” follows the previously estranged Bordelon siblings still reeling from their father’s death. Stubborn but ambitious Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Black Lives Matter activist and journalist Nova (Rutina Wesley), and single father and recent parolee Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), must now contend with the immense responsibility of the sugar cane farm that they have inherited. Last season, the Oprah Winfrey-produced series, introduced us to these beloved characters and their home in Saint Josephine, Louisiana. We watched them try to deal with the pressures of their lives while learning to lean on one another. Ahead of the season two premiere, I flew to Los Angeles to chat with the cast and Ms. Winfrey about what’s to come when the Bordelons open their lives to us once again.
There has been nothing on television like “Queen Sugar” in recent years, which is why the audience response has been so astounding. Gardner explained the hunger for a series depicting the richness of Black life. She said, "I’ll never forget being in college at Julliard and one of my friends who was white; we were watching 'The Cosby Show' and I was like, 'God, isn’t 'The Cosby Show' so amazing?' He’s like 'Yeah it is, but I always just felt like aren’t they just tryna be white?' I remember just hearing that and being like, 'What did you just say?!' It was a realization that you don't know what happens in Black families, you don’t know what Black culture includes. And why would you know? Nothing is showing you. So it became this deep feeling of wanting there to be something that shares those truths and shares what is happening."
"Queen Sugar" has done an exemplary job when it comes to showcasing the many facets of Black life. For Ms. Winfrey, there is a lot to be proud of. She stated, “Everything makes me proud about it. First of all to be able to do it, to have a show that reflects so deeply who we are as a race and as a culture. To represent what I call the Southern values from which nearly all of us have come. Even if you are were born in the North or raised in the West, you have some kind of root there. From the moment Ava said, 'I think I found Vi’s house.' The fact that this cast came together the way that it did, it feels like it is of divine design for me. As Ava has said many times, she doesn’t cast just for character; she casts for spirit. So there is a spiritual vibe that is showing up on the screen. I could cry right now just thinking about it, I really could. the second season we go further and deeper; the connection to family and what you see happening with all of them, it’s a beautiful thing to see, it’s just a beautiful thing to accomplish, and I feel grateful for everything. It’s the little things. We are individual and unique and expressive. What the show represents is that we are also whole. We may be flawed, but there is also a depth of wholeness there that keeps us connected and together. It’s everything!"
Still, those intricacies that Ms. Winfrey is so moved by aren’t by accident. Since her breakout film, "Middle of Nowhere," Ava DuVernay has enraptured us with her stories about Black life, and all of the small nuances that composite who we are as human beings. I asked the cast what DuVernay brings to "Queen Sugar" that makes it so unique, and they were all thrilled to sing her praises. Gardner discussed DuVernay's ability to hone into the truth. She explained, “I think that one of Ava’s genius abilities is her absolute ownership of her authenticities. It is really the primary quality that she walks in the world with, and I feel like 'Queen Sugar' is an expression of that. It’s an expression of that primary vein of a culture, or what happens in a backyard, or what happens around a dinner table in a living room. That carries an intention behind that. I know people who have come to me and said that they feel healed by the show. I think that is Ava. That is an intention that she has for every single project that she spearheads. It’s not just for entertainment or fun. It’s absolutely socially driven. It’s absolutely tapping into what the need is and trying to meet it."
Siriboe, the 23-year old breakout star who embodies Ralph Angel explained DuVernay’s storytelling as a kind of call and response. He stated, “I just think Ava is 'Queen Sugar' personified. I feel like just her leadership and her deliberateness, she knows exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. She’s not afraid to be like Nova where she explores, and she receives, and I think that’s what “Queen Sugar” does. It’s a give and take. We talk to the audience, they talk to us back. I meet so many people on the streets who tell me how the show affects them and that’s what I take and think about when I’m working on set. I feel like that’s Ava. She’s talking to the world, and they are talking back, and she’s doing that with 'Queen Sugar.'"
Wesley who portrays the fearless but often conflicted Nova suggested, “Ava knows how to get people talking. And listening too, because she will give you a slightly different perspective or a slightly different reality than something that you thought you knew. Then, you see it a different way, and that's our hope, to spark a dialogue and to speak truth to power, and I feel like Ava really does it in a way that one wants to listen and engage and not feel put upon. Sometimes you can watch a show or even the news and just feel beat over the head. I feel like with 'Queen Sugar' you just go, 'Here you go.' It’s warm, and it’s heartfelt, but it’s also messy and raw. It's in a way that you can really engage and listen, and I think that’s important and that starts with how she is as a person. She’s detailed, and she cares, and she comes from her heart with everything that she does, and that’s why you see heart on the screen. That’s because that’s her. She’s so open and warm, and that’s contagious.”
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