Tucked away behind the stage in the Grand Ballroom A&B at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, the host site of the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists’ National Convention and Career Fair, were members of the cast from OWN’s mega-hit TV show “Queen Sugar,” who spoke about cast dynamics, where they draw their inspiration, and how their fans make all the difference.
The assembly of actors were regal in appearance as they took turns answering reporters’ questions before appearing on stage for the 2017 NABJ Arts & Entertainment Reception Powered by OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
“Queen Sugar,” created and executive produced by Academy Award nominated director Ava DuVernay, has already earned the acclaim of many stanch viewers from the African American community so much so that an announcement for a third season has already been made. During their conversation with The Defender, the cast had a genuine appreciation for their platform as artists and how their work not only the impacts the audience but themselves as well. By any measure, these artists love their work and how it translates to an audience who not only looks like them, but who can relate to the struggles, triumphs, and vulnerability that their characters face in their own lives. One of the stars of “Queen Sugar,” Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who plays Charley Bordelon West, described the “joy” she experienced working with her cast and crew.
“I actually have to pinch myself because I am still in a little bit of shock that this is the great fortune that I’ve been given,” said Gardner. “I think a part of it is the love between the cast and the joy there and the very genuine sense of magic that happens between us both on-screen and off-screen. I think our leaders are a big, big part of that. They continue to infuse the project with revolutionary mission, and I think we can feel it industry wide, and I feel we definitely feel it community wide.”
Fellow “Queen Sugar” cast member Tina Lifford (who plays Aunt Violet Borderlon) noted DuVernay typically casts her projects with actors for “spirit not just their talent,” which was met with an immediate rebuttal from fellow co-star Omar J. Dorsey (who plays Hollywood) who joked, “I know you’re happy about that.” To say the trio enjoyed each other’s presence would be an understatement as throughout the interview jokes, smiles, and laughter were in abundance. The trio laughed over who was the most proficient at “throwing shade.”
“What’s exciting is how often you get to step onto a new job, meet 10 people, and gel with all of them and have a level of respect that is so sound that you can joist and have real fun, this is our family,” said Lifford.
Beyond the laughter was an acknowledgement of the element of artistry intertwined throughout the series starting from the top. Lifford spoke about how DuVernay’s “vision” about the presentation and execution for the world she’s created.
“The vision of Ava is to render characters that absolutely speak with a level of truth and authenticity to all of our experiences in a way that’s compelling,” said Lifford. “I think we do that and you get to see that we’re accomplishing that when Twitter lights up and people are responding to the people that they’ve come to love and how they are experiencing life.”
Gardner echoed Lifford’s sentiment while making note of how “Queen Sugar” gives voices to different segments of the African American experience. She said the show gives an opportunity to speak towards the conversation she wants to discuss with an element of beauty and more.
“At the core of ‘Queen Sugar’ is to create art that is recognizable, that is speaking to an experience that doesn’t get voiced as often as it should,” said Gardner. “I know for me, this is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, it’s one of the most defining experiences of my life because it’s fused being able to speak to the things that I care about passionately.”
Elements of the production of “Queen Sugar” that have drawn widespread acclaim are the visual presentation, hue, perfect lighting of all the cast members and the overall feel of the program. Gardner described the effort to ensure high quality lighting as “very intentional” by DuVernay to give the show a film-like quality. She said part of DuVernay’s “genius” was in selecting the show’s cinematographers, Antonio Calvache and Kira Kelly.
“I feel like [Calvache and Kelly] are both committed, genuinely committed to the characters, to us as actors, to capturing moments of authentic cultural experience as beautifully as they can because somewhere I think that we all understand that if something is rendered with extreme beauty, we’re simply going to want to watch it, and to see it and to understand it and to relate to it,” said Gardner. “I think it was a genius move of Ava’s to make that a priority and to understand that was as much as a part of the storytelling as dialogue, clothes, as everything else is.”
The impact of Black Twitter’s support of the series and its cast has not gone unnoticed. Dorsey described seeing his show become the number one trending topic in the world on Twitter while it’s on-air as “crazy.” He said these days it’s “weird” walking through the mall to hear people call him by his character’s name. He recalled a conversation with DuVernay prior to last year’s Essence Festival where he wondered aloud if the audience would “love the show as much as we do.”
“We saw the pilot a few times before anyone else saw it and it was just beautiful,” said Dorsey. “Are people going to be around to watch this? Are people just going to sit and chill and go with plot, plot, plot all the time and the storytelling? Ava and I had this long conversation and she said ‘I believe in our people’. And so when it came on and blew up, I was like ‘wow!’”
“Queen Sugar” airs on OWN Wednesdays.