There are few greater privileges of being a culture journalist than talking binge-worthy television programming with one of the small-screen’s most captivating protagonists. Chatting personal theories, uncovering on-set secrets, and unpacking some of the season’s biggest bombshell moments with an insider carries more clout than press passes, 24-hour exclusives, or advanced screeners.
Or, it at least certainly felt so when speaking with Queen Sugar’s Dawn-Lyen Gardner last week. Days before Own Network’s smash hit family drama was poised to make its highly anticipated mid-season return tonight, Gardner, who plays the fierce Charley Bordelon-West, was up to chat Season 2 spoilers with this dedicated viewer.
“You’ve seen the second half, correct?” the Juilliard-trained actress asked. “I don’t want to give away too much stuff that’s in there, but I love that you’ve finished. We can really talk about it!” Letting out a mischievous laugh, the 35-year-old actress launched into the happenings of her complex but relatable lead character, whose ripped-from-the-headlines personal saga has gripped the Ava DuVernay-executive produced show since its 2016 premiere.
To Sugar’s fans, Charley is known as the middle child of three estranged siblings, a shrewd and beautiful businesswoman who led a glossy, glamorous and fast-paced life for years in Los Angeles, miles away from her rural Louisiana beginnings. As the manager and wife to hotshot NBA player, Davis West, Charley is one-half of a major power couple—that is until scandal rocks her marriage. Spiraling out publicly, Charley heads back to her hometown of St. Josephine, Louisiana with teenage son “Micah” in tow, to ride out the shock, where she also grieves the untimely death of her father and reconnects with her siblings, Nova (Rutina Wesley) and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe).
Applying her business acumen to the sugar cane farm her father left behind, Charley dives into supporting her family in tending to its 800 acres of sugar cane and decides to lay roots in the sleepy, farming community by opening a sugar cane mill—a first for a black woman in the state of Louisiana. Overly-ambitious and leaving herself little time to heal, the indefatigable Charley seems dead-set on putting the past behind her and starting over. But the cracks in her polished facade are beginning to show to rest in the part-two series premiere, as her distant mother sweeps into town.
“I feel like her mother coming is yet another piece of the puzzle, and in a way, it’s sort of like she’s just continuing to unpack, like literally and figuratively this season,” Gardner said. “That’s what we’re seeing. She is settling here, she has chosen to be here, she is now literally unpacking a new space. And you see her unpacking emotionally, acknowledging that there’s so much under the hood that needed a tune-up for a minute.” Viewers will find the normally controlled Charley doubtful and unsure in the presence of her scrupulous mother, played by Sharon Lawrence, as questions of Charley’s business decisions, personal life, and identity as a bi-racial woman are called into play.
“It’s so interesting to talk about this now because I’ve been living with this information for a year and a half, so at no point was this news to me. It was in every decision I made character-wise,” Gardner explained. “It was in every consideration I had and I wove it into her ambition, I wove it in her need to prove herself, I wove it into her desire for her family to accept her or love her.” Gardner, who is both African-American and Asian, felt a special closeness to the material and was determined to create a space for Charley’s character and onscreen mother to talk out the complex intersection of parenthood and race.
“I struggled with belonging and I think that what's really at the center of Charlie’s fracture is the sense of belonging. I think we see that in her relationship with the community farmers, even within her own family.”
The pull of dual identities, code-switching, and starting over is raw material to watch unfold, but wildly relatable to an audience accustomed to Charley’s on-screen moves: from her budding romance with irrigation specialist Remy Newell to her endearing move to don her natural curls. Rife with layers and possibilities, it’s that “woman in transition narrative” that originally led Gardner to the role. “I loved this idea that there was this woman before all the armor came on. There was someone before the perfection and before all the structures are in place. And I felt like I know that moment. I felt like a lot of women know that moment. The moment before you have to get yourself armed for the world. And especially if you’re in an industry where you’re not supposed to be.”
Gardner’s words seem to ring even truer given Sugar is a female-driven production, with Oprah and Ava DuVernay at the wheel. Directing the show's first two episodes, DuVernay then enlisted a versatile and talented rotation of female directors, including the formidable Julie Dash this season, to bring the show to life. “It’s just a dream come true. For years before this project, I had been talking with friends of mine about women in business and about going on set, guest starring on shows, and walking into all-male environments from either the casting room to the actual set, and how normalized you make that, but it has a cost,” Gardner said. “You feel other-ed, you just do. There isn’t necessarily a leaning into your point of view or offering of the woman.”
But spending two consecutive seasons with a woman in the director’s chair has created what Gardner describes as a real “paradigm shift” for the Sugar cast that will hopefully extend to Hollywood at large.
When much of the conversation in entertainment in the past year has been centered upon gender wage gaps and diversity inclusion, Sugar has actively and successfully chipped away at the status quo. “It destroys the assumption of who is entitled to that role. Who gets to do that work. Who gets to lead a set. Who gets to lead the storytelling, really, of a project,” said Gardner. And that so many of Queen Sugar’s directors are new to television brings another perspective to these female-centered stories: sweeping, transportive, and cinematic camera work. “The gratitude and the care and the time that is taken to really be present, a desire to be present. None of it’s for granted,” Gardner continued.
As a fan of the show, I argued that beyond the show's visual appeal, Charley was in dire need of a little fun this season. With a laugh Gardner, who seems to have picked up the directing bug and is herself busy working on two scripts, left me with the cliffhanger: “We’ll see.”
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