Since its debut in September 2016, Queen Sugar has, along with a growing array of series about different aspects of the black experience, helped set the standard for depicting African Americans as fully realized people in TV’s “platinum age.” Created by filmmaker Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th”), Queen Sugar focuses on the relationship among siblings Ralph Angel, Charley and Nova Bordelon, who inherit a struggling 800-acre sugarcane farm after the unexpected death of their father.
The acclaimed series, set in the fictional town of St. Josephine, Louisiana, has inspired more than one critical appreciation, including here at Paste: its treatment of black manhood and womanhood, the class divide, and drug addiction, to name a few. “Queen Sugar is a journey of its own,” says Kofi Siriboe who plays Ralph Angel, a single father and parolee.
Over the course of the first half of Season Two (read our episodic reviews here), Siriboe and his on-screen sisters Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley have continued to add layers of their characters—and to the Bordelons’ sibling dynamic, one of the most compelling on TV. After the opening of the new mill and the Bordelons’ emotional argument over their father’s legacy, the actors promise that much more is still to be uncovered when the series returns in the fall.
“The foundation of our show is love and family,” Wesley says. “That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing, because the actors and the crew are allowed to create in a way that is healthy and from love.”
Paste spoke with Wesley, Gardner and Siriboe about the midseason finale, what’s to come for the Bordelons, their love for DuVernay, and how Wesley protects Siriboe from the advances of older women.
Paste: What do you think your character brings to television that hasn’t been showcased before, and what was your initial impression?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: What excited me about her was being this woman that has it so together and is on top of the world and by the end of the first episode we’re seeing her world crumble. And so, we’re seeing her unmasked. That’s what I’ve always been interested in… who she is before the armor goes on and then who she is with the armor on and then what makes her take the armor off. I think for black women, especially, I don’t think we see that explored and unearthed in really powerful and complicated ways and I think that she represents, for me, the parts of myself that [are] always fixing and always in action. But that part of her that also needs to be taken care of and heard and vulnerable.
Kofi Siriboe: I think what I admire about Ralph Angel and what he represents is the level of tenacity and transparency. He knows he messed up. He’s not running away from his past, but he’s also not allowing it to define him. He’s going through the work, it’s not easy, it’s not a simple journey and trying to get over those peaks and valleys and trying to find his way on the other side. He’s been broken down to the core and sometimes he can be a little prideful or sensitive, but at the end of the day he wears his heart on his sleeve. He lives his truth and he does his best… and that’s such a great example for young boys who don’t have a father figure to look up to. It’s inspiring to me being Ralph Angel, because there is a level of transparency and truth that he gets to share that I don’t think I’ve reached in my own life.
Rutina Wesley: So many sistas have come up to me and they’re just like, “Thank you for her, because I am her” and they just feel seen. Me and Nova have one thing in common: You can’t pin us down. We are so many things which make us unique and Nova is so many things, you can’t figure her out and that’s actually okay. I will never forget reading the very first page of the script. I just remember the description of “Nova Bordelon, 37”—I had just turned 37: “She walks across the room as if no one’s watching; piercings and tattoos adorn her body. She’s comfortable in her own skin.. and a dark chocolate [skin].” I was like, “Wait a minute!” I had to put it down. “This is not happening!”
Paste: Kofi, Ralph Angel took a big step in the midseason finale by proposing to Darla. What will the future hold for them when the season returns in the fall?
Siriboe: I just feel like their journey has been so complex in a lot of ways, but at the same time it’s very powerful that they’ve gone through the steps they needed to go through to rekindle their love. As far as where it goes, I think that it’s another step in their journey and they have to still find that common ground to give each other space to grow and come into their own. I think there’s a path to find that balance of being together and supporting each other but also supporting each other’s individual growth. To find that space and themselves.
Paste: Remy and Charley have a very complex relationship, and in the midseason finale she finally expresses her feelings for him. Nova also finds companionship with Dr. Robert DuBois. Do you think the sisters will ever make space for these men?
Gardner: That is the crux of the issue: Can they make space? Part of what we’re seeing in the season has been asking if they are right for each other and then asking who they’re making space for. I love their relationship because it’s very grown, it’s mature love, you know? It’s not Romeo and Juliet, it’s not teenage puppy love, it is very mature love—and with that comes complications and knowing more of who you are, what you need and what you want. I feel both of them this season asking that question and not taking it for granted. And also allowing and acknowledging that they have a connection that can’t be denied.
Wesley: That is the thing, isn’t it? [laughs] You know what? Anything is possible, which is why I love playing this character. I think it’s possible because I think with DuBois, I think he gets into her head. He can run with her brain and Nova—the physical stuff, that’s great—but can we talk about some things? Nova needs somebody who can get into her head, and I think that is quite possible with DuBois because he clearly sees her and matches her in some aspects. They see eye to eye on a lot of things and also not necessarily eye to eye, because he challenges her—and Nova is about that. But whether or not she’ll fully accept that is the question, because she’s unpredictable.
Paste: The explosive argument at the dinner table in “Line of Our Elders” was emotional. What was it like shooting that scene?
Gardner: That scene was one of the most intense scenes I’d ever filmed of anything. I think it was the first day of shooting [laughs]. It was such an intense scene, and DeMane Davis, who directed that episode, was brilliant because she gave us so much space and was so respectful of whatever everyone needed. And we all gave that to each other, too. It took hours and hours and hours and we never dropped down from that emotional pitch. It’s sort of like one of those bonding experiences where no one will know what that was unless they were there, but it reflected how much we all have invested into this show.
Wesley: When we have an episode like that it takes soldiers, it takes actors who are willing to jump together, hand-in-hand off the cliff and you can’t see the bottom. You just have to jump and hope for the best. When we do scenes like that, we are very conscious of, like, hugging it out at the end of the day: “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” You always have to come back together because this show is so full of drama. We’ll finish a take and right before they say “cut” if I know I can do it I’ll start singing like Annie. I have to keep it light.
Paste: What is your relationship like with one another on and off set?
Siriboe: Those are my big sisters in real life. We just take care of each other. It’s just about constantly checking in in the midst of this machine because once production starts, it doesn’t stop. We’re just making sure we’re good. We’re all giving so much, we’re laying it all out on the table. These are just my family and it’s real. Dawn and Rutina have made this journey way more enjoyable. I honestly don’t think I could do it without them.
Wesley: Dawn-Lyen is my sister for life. She’s a beast. There’s nothing she can’t do! She’s an incredible artist in theater and on screen. [Kofi], that’s my brother, ‘cause big sister is going to tell you what she thinks. Ironically, he’s like a day behind my brother, and I felt immediately connected to him. Actually, working with Kofi has made me kind of understand my brother a little bit more and they’re not that far apart. My brother is 22 and Kofi is 23 and so I have a very special affection for him, I just feel like I have to protect him. I have to make sure he’s going to be OK. I always let him know that I’m here. I have to tell women, “He is 23! No, no, you can’t have it! Back up! How old are you? Are you kidding me?” [laughs]
Paste: What is your experience working with Ava DuVernay?
Siriboe: It’s a dream come true. I look up to Ava, just seeing how hard she works and how much she juggles. They say “jack of all trades, master of none.” No, she masters them all! I got an email from her at 4 a.m., she sent me over some rewrites and it’s just like, “Ava, why are you not asleep right now?” [laughs]. It allows me to say, “OK, I’ve been blessed to work with someone who isn’t normal.” I just want to soak up as much as possible and she’s such an amazing leader. She represents everything we need for this society right now.
Gardner: Ava gives us a gift: She really empowers you to bring all of yourself to a role. All of your curiosity and your thoughts and your fears, just all of you. I think in doing that you bring and find parts of yourself you didn’t know you had. I’ve been such a fan of Ava for years. She’s one of my heroes in the business.
Ashley G. Terrell is a freelance entertainment writer based in Michigan. Her work has appeared in Ebony Magazine, The Huffington Post, Black Girl Nerds, and more. She is currently working on her first novel and is the creator of the blog, The Carefree Black Girl Chronicles of ASHLEMONADE. You can follow her on Twitter.