NEW ORLEANS — It could be “Queen Sugar’s” trifecta of rising lead stars, stirring a powerful cauldron of family drama that mixes contemporary with the ancestral.
Or maybe the rich vision and distinctive direction of executive producer Oprah Winfrey and Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay in this celluloid re-imagining of author Natalie Baszile’s first novel.
More likely, it’s a combination of both that have propelled the Oprah Winfrey Network’s original drama series to its place of acclaim on the vast landscape of scripted cable series. The show, returning with a two-night midseason premiere starting at 9 p.m. Tuesday, is among the year’s top five cable series among women ages 25-54 — averaging over 2.3 million viewers per episode.
“I think the story is actually very simple and quite universal. It has to do with complexity and humanity and dimension. It’s about family,” says Dawn-Lyen Gardner, 37, who plays Charley Bordelon West, oldest of three siblings. She co-stars with Rutina Wesley, 38, as younger sister Nova Bordelon, and Kofi Siriboe, 23, as baby brother Ralph Angel Bordelon.
“You have three siblings who are estranged, really, who don’t know each other in the way they want and are searching for a way to get back to each other while moving forward their father’s legacy. It involves issues of identity, reinvention, history and responsibility,” Gardner says. “The question at the core is: ‘How do we honor the shoulders upon which we stand?’ They’re all answering it in very different ways, and at the center of all of that is love.”
Gardner, Wesley and several other “Queen Sugar” stars converged on the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans recently to chew on the series’ impact. The two lead actresses also have become ambassadors of the #FindYourPark campaign highlighting this National Park Service centennial year, and led a tour of some of the area’s famed parks — as rich in history as the nearby former plantation just outside New Orleans where much of the series is filmed.
The show, also breaking barriers through an all-female directing team handpicked by DuVernay, debuted its second season on OWN June 20 with its highest-rated episode ever in key adult and female demographics.
Exploring such universal themes as racism, life after incarceration, police corruption, sexuality and sexual abuse, infidelity and financial struggles, it’s among the four most-watched cable series on Wednesdays among all viewers and among African-American women. Among women ages 25-54, it’s No. 2. Siriboe’s heartthrob factor, of course, has to be noted.
“There’s something everyone can identify with in this family,” says Gardner. “My own family is similar to the Bordelons in terms of the span. You’ve got folks who are doctors and those who are struggling with everything folks struggle with. I loved the script as soon as I read it. To be able to see my family watch this show and hear from them that they are feeling ‘seen’ is an amazing and extremely personal part of it, and not far off from what I hear other people are getting from this show. They feel so acknowledged for the first time.”
The Bordelon siblings of St. Josephine, Louisiana, struggle to move forward with their lives and still honor their father’s legacy after his sudden death. The cosmopolitan Charley moves back to her rural home to run the family’s sugarcane farm, fighting to save her family’s inheritance as the only black woman sugarcane mill owner.
She also must rebuild relationships with Ralph Angel, a formerly incarcerated single father struggling for respect and independence from his sisters and a relationship with his son’s mother, and the eccentric Nova, a journalist/community activist torn between her work and a desire to be loved.
Originally from Las Vegas, Wesley graduated from the University of Evansville before going on to Juilliard, where coincidentally she and Gardner were classmates. Wesley’s dossier includes seven seasons as Tara on HBO’s hit vampire series “True Blood,” where she’d worked with the late Nelsan Ellis, a Chicago native and Juilliard classmate of her and Gardner. Before “True Blood” was the lead role in 2007’s cult dance flick “How She Move,” and after “True Blood,” the role of Reba McClane on NBC’s “Hannibal.”
” ‘Queen Sugar’ is everything for me. It’s the first time I ever saw a script like this: ‘Nova Bordelon, 37, walks across the room. Her tattoos and piercings adorn her body. She walks across the room as if no one was watching.’ And that just meant she was comfortable in her own skin,” says Wesley, 38, a deep chocolate beauty, discreetly alluding to the age-old bias over skin tone.
“A lot of people, mostly black women who are Novas themselves and feel like we’ve always had to compete with ourselves — which doesn’t make sense — love Nova,” says Wesley, who’d worked with DuVernay when the director was still in film marketing and publicizing “How She Move.”
“I was intimidated by this role because I know what an incredible beast of an artist both Ava and Oprah are. I felt like, ‘You can’t give me all of this weight. I’m not ready.’ But I guess I was,” says Wesley. “Nova walks in her truth. Nova will move mountains to champion for her community. And now I’ll be damned if I’m not an activist, and if I don’t walk in my truth too. I feel like Nova is me.”