One of the things actor and Chicago native Timon Kyle Durrett likes about “Queen Sugar” is the pacing of the new drama series on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network — more like a film than a typical episodic television program.
“I feel that a big part of that is that all of the individual directors are not only women who have a strong connection to the stories we’re telling here, but that they all had never directed television before,” said Durrett, calling from his current home in Los Angeles. That all-female ensemble includes series creator Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), who directed the first two episodes and then selected the other helmers, including Tina Mabry, Victoria Mahoney, Tanya Hamilton, So Young Kim, Kat Candler, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Neema Barnette. The series (premiering at 9 p.m. Tuesday) is based on a book by Natalie Baszile.
“Queen Sugar” follows the lives of estranged siblings, brought together unexpectedly by the serious illness of their father, to run the family’s 800-acre sugarcane farm in the middle of Louisiana. Durrett portrays Los Angeles-based pro basketball player Davis West, who is married to Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), one of the daughters, who also happens to be the manager of his high-profile career.
Born and raised on the South Side, Durrett attended Fenger Academy High School in the city’s Roseland community. “I come from a big family — five brothers and two sisters, and I’m in the middle,” said the actor, who is best known for his roles in the “Single Ladies” TV series and films including “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” and “Like Mike.”
Clearly enthusiastic about being part of the large ensemble cast, Durrett admitted he does “know a few guys” who are in the NBA and other professional sports teams. In addition, the actor pointed out that “I played college ball, so I understand the challenges these fellows face as they navigate between different expectations — and temptations. Even though I never played professional ball, I did witness some things that came along that I would have never expected. … So, I could bring that to this role as well.”
A key plot point centers on a sex scandal involving members of West’s NBA team.
Durrett said that he felt “so blessed” to have been tapped by DuVernay to play West — saying she’s not only a brilliant filmmaker and storyteller, “but she has this regal quality about her that makes you want to listen to what she has to say. She just exudes such confidence and passion about the project that you, in turn, absorb that confidence and passion as well. It makes for a wonderful working environment that frankly makes it more fun than work!
“Her work ethic is simply so inspiring. She is encouraging. She is not just directing. She helps you get inside the character’s mind and then you come to understand the person you are playing — bringing that character off of the page and into reality on-screen.”
The pairing of DuVernay and Winfrey, a “Selma” co-star, “was like being in the presence of the queen and the princess who is about to ascend the throne,” said the actor with a laugh.
“When I got the initial email about the audition for this role, I realized I had to jump on this! I auditioned in December, and then on Jan. 20, my phone rang. I was expecting some other phone calls that day, but when I answered it was Ava.”
Learning he had landed the role, Durrett said, “I could launched off of the planet that day, I was so blown away. I couldn’t believe that I was about to be part of an Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay television series as a regular.”
The actor was so “blown away” it actually took him about a day to call his family with the good news. “I really had a hard time digesting the fact I got the role! I didn’t know how to tell them. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the truth!”
At a time when so much focus is on the issue of diversity — or frequently the lack of it — in Hollywood films and TV shows, “Queen Sugar” clearly will help alleviate that problem, given its principal cast members are all African-Americans.
“It’s not just an all-African-American cast,” Durrett said, “but I like the fact ‘Queen Sugar’ shows all aspects of the black experience in America — all ranges of social and economic conditions. It shows the diversity of the community as a whole.”
Beyond that, Durrett believes having a half-dozen female directors helm the various episodes helped diversify the project.
“We got to work with women who brought six different styles [of directing] to the table. It’s like having six different people cooking chicken,” said Durrett with a sly chuckle. “Some people fix it barbecue style. Others will serve it baked or fried or whatever. The same went with the way these women directed. Each one gave us something new. The personalities of these different women represented such a cornucopia of talent.”