When Queen Sugar debuted in 2016, it wasn't long before the show became one of the Oprah Winfrey Network's premiere television shows. From the show's inception, creator Ava DuVernay went out of her way to make the program a voice for women and people of color. And while a significant chunk of that concept is presented on-screen through lead actors like Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, and Kofi Siriboe, the cast was emphatic in stating their universal adoration of the show's inclusive and empowering environment behind the camera as well.
Wesley, Gardner, and Siriboe recently attended Tribeca's new TV Festival, where they chatted with moderator Jim Halterman about the show's mid-season premiere, as well as the process of developing their characters, collaborating with each other and the rest of the show's filmmakers, and finding sympathy for people that can be so complicated.
The value of working with female directors
One of the defining traits of Queen Sugar's production has been the show's steadfast dedication to female directors. And though Siriboe expressed interest in directing or co-directing future episodes alongside Wesley and Gardner, the trio emphasized the value they felt the show earned from a distinctly female touch. With a show so dedicated to finding and executing the vital moments of emotional family drama, Wesley talked about how the voice of a woman can be instrumental. "Women challenge us to be raw, they're more sensitive." And though Wesley was careful to make clear that men can be sensitive and emotional too, Gardner and Siriboe agreed that the process of collaborating with women such as DuVernay had been a liberating experience that they've been unable to find in other places.
"It's so different to be part of something that is actively challenging and confronting bias on so many levels."
Wesley and Gardner both spoke in-depth about collaborating with the writers, directors, and fellow cast members of the show, about how to approach and develop their characters, and how that inclusivity of women helped the process immensely. Gardner singled out Julie Dash, whose intimate direction in one pivotal scene in the mid-season premiere allowed Gardner to find a new level of emotional depth in her character. "I want to give Julie props. She gave us such room and freedom. A good chunk of that huge scene was improvised, and she kind of left us alone and created this womb for us to have this new moment for these two characters who are so intimately connected. It was a beautiful experience."
Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Kofi Siriboe in 'Queen Sugar'Credit: OWN
The importance of having their voices heard
The panel wrapped up with a round of questions from the audience, including one that evoked strong emotional responses from the actors. Asked about the cultural importance of Queen Sugar and the unique perspective that it presents to audiences, Siriboe said that working on the show feels like a huge responsibility. "As an actor, a man, a black person, a human being, I know it's not about me right now. That's why I put my heart and soul on-screen. It's like therapy for us. We didn't have that before, and now we do."
Piggybacking off her co-star's comments, Gardner was proud to bring the work of the show's writers and directors to life and to be part of something that is creatively challenging bias in our modern cultural climate. "It's so different to be part of something that is very actively challenging and confronting bias on so many levels. Bias in our country, and how we experience, view and feel with black folks, but also bias in our industry with women, people of color, in front of and behind the camera at all levels of production."
"I get to reveal who this woman really is and go into the underworld of her."
Gardner continued, "As an actor, you yearn to have an opportunity to speak to your experience, your family's experience, your neighborhood's experience and it hurts to not have those opportunities. It's almost become a shocking experience with this show, and it's thanks to Ava, to Oprah, for being our guides in this..., revolutionizing our industry with no apology."
Kofi Siriboe, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley in 'Queen Sugar'Credit: OWN
The ability to portray characters with depth
In between discussing the social importance of the show and the artistic value in diversity, Wesley, Gardner, and Siriboe also provided great insight into how they craft and meld their roles into the fantastic characters they have become. In response to another audience question, Gardner discussed how she was able to make Charley into a relatable woman instead of someone who turns the audience away with her ambitions.
"It wasn't about trying to make Charley palatable," explained Gardner. "She's a woman who's in a business where she's constantly underestimated for not being the norm and so she feels additional pressure to be excellent, on top of her innate desire to be excellent. I was so excited by the end of the first episode where all of her structures of perfection have collapsed, and that means that I get to reveal who this woman really is and go into the underworld of her. That's where we all can relate to each other. When we're on our knees."