On the Set of ‘Queen Sugar’ in New Orleans: Girl Magic, Power - and Fun

by Elisabeth Sereda June 21, 2017
A scene from season 2 of the TV series Queen Sugar

Rutina Wesley (Nova) in a scene from season two of Queen Sugar.

michelle k. short

Season Two of Queen Sugar, the series created and produced by Golden Globe-nominee Ava DuVernay – part I of the premiere aired yesterday, with part II coming up today – was shot in New Orleans where the story of the Bordelon family takes place. In May they were filming the midseason finale - and what a day to be on the set! One rarely gets to see such highly emotional scenes being filmed, much less reading the sides (pages being shot on a particular day), but in the interest of the unwritten ‘no spoilers, please!’-rule, we will not divulge details. Suffice it to say that all actors present were surprisingly relaxed despite what their characters go through.

A warehouse in New Orleans’ suburb of Metairie serves as a soundstage, housing the sets for Ralph Angel’s, Nova’s, Charley’s house and Auntie Vi’s house as well as the coffee shop she works at. Exterior scenes were still being filmed in Vacherie, about an hour northwest of the city. Like the first season, all episodes are being directed by women, a mandate from creator Ava DuVernay, which is why Rutina Wesley (Nova) called her “a mastermind. She’s the actor’s director. She casts for spirit which is why we all fit together so well.” Kofi Siriboe (Ralph Angel) added that it “shouldn’t be so rare to have women directors on television.”

Certainly, all the male actors present on the day of the set visit were anything but intimidated. Nick Ashe came skipping down the stage, belying the intensity of the scene he just filmed, and Dondre Whitfield had everyone in stitches, not being the least bit disturbed by a set piece falling over with a loud crash while the cameras were rolling in the middle of a rather intimate encounter with Dawn-Lyen Gardner. Queen Sugar is clearly a highly professional yet incredibly happy set.

Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Charley), Dondre Whitfield (Remy), Tina Lifford (Aunt Vi), Nicholas Ashe (Micah), Bianca Lawson (Darla) and Timon Durrett (Davis) talked about their characters, season 2 and Ava DuVernay. (In the interest of the “no spoilers rule” we must add that no one will go to jail, and there will be a lot of kissing this season.)

What makes this project different from others you have worked on? It seems from what I have watched that you’re not using a stand in when the camera is not on you?

Dawn: That is the gift. Trusting each other to be there for the other actor even when they do not have to be on set. That they will give just as much. That has been such a blessing and an inspiration, because it’s not necessarily common practice, especially on TV where the pace is so much faster and you don’t have to give it your all when the camera is not on you. But it’s in my bones to give them the opportunity to react to something that’s real and organic and honest and full. It helps them to tell a better story and that means the story is better.

Timon: I call it artistically delicious. You like to look at it from all angles,from the hair, the make-up, the set that New Orleans and surrounding areas provide. New Orleans itself is a living, breathing character. If film and television had a baby, it would be Queen Sugar, because it has all the elements of both.

Can each of you please talk about the arch of your character in season 2?

Bianca Lawson: Darla is working on her recovery, on being a mother and her relationship with Ralph Angel, but mostly not losing herself and forgetting the things that got her clean. It looks at addiction in a very specific way. With Ralph Angel, it’s ups and downs. For her it is about self-care.

Timon: Davis is going through a maturation period where he understands things went wrong, but he’s at least trying to make it right with his son. He needs to save his relationship with Micah. He is no longer the contentious, loathed character he was in season 1. He has a chance to make himself less hated.

Nick: We are in the middle of shooting season 2, so everything that we introduced in the beginning is coming to a head now. And what you think you understood is now being flipped on its head. It’s really exciting, we know all the secrets and can’t tell anybody! But we also experience the show as our characters would, each episode at a time. We don’t know what’s happening next.

Tina: There were things in the last two scripts that made me go ‘whaaat?!’ Of course, I can’t tell you what those are. Vi starts off this season with having to reconcile her feelings around Hollywood and discovers something about herself in the process. Everyone is in a state of change, you might have thought you knew who the characters in season 1 were, and now there is a layer being revealed and takes you deeper into the people and the complications of their lives.

 

Scenes from season 2 of the TV series "Queen Sugar"

Scenes from Sugar, season 2: Rutina Wesley and Dawn Lyen-Gardner (top); Kofi Siriboe, Ethan Rutchinson and Bianca Lawson (left);  and Rutina Wesley and Tina Lifford.

michelle k. short/alfonso bresciani

 

How much do you have in common with Charley?

Dawn: There’s two answers, the first one, a whole lot. People in my life would go, yeah, yeah, totally. The second is, that there are parts of her that I’ve known very well in my life and there are parts of her that I’ve questioned in my life. And those are the parts that make it exhausting because I’m not interested in living my life that way. I sometimes wanna say to Charley, go get some tea or a massage. She is in constant dialogue with herself.

How much is Ava’s presence felt, even now that she is busy with A Wrinkle in Time and not on the set as much as during season 1?

Timon: Ava’s presence is like the sun’s, she’s is here all the time in spirit. She spawned all this along with Oprah and the original writer Natalie Baszile. Ava is my superhero.

Tina: I said to Ava once ‘I think that you are a witch’, I meant a good witch. Ava has another sense, you have to attribute to her that all these people of a high vibration are here at the same time, jelling so well. She didn’t know us when she hired us and yet she connected us all, and everyone realizes that there is energy here that is unusual and extraordinary.

Bianca: I auditioned and then had a Skype session with Ava, and I remember feeling that I have never had a part like this before, even though I only read a few pages at that point. It was different from the beginning because she is a filmmaker and most of our directors are filmmakers, there is a different kind of sensibility. It doesn’t feel like TV, it feels like making an indie film.

Dawn: Ava has a lot do with the artistic generosity between us because of how generous she was a director and the kind of set culture she was interested in creating.

Is that also felt in the fact that every director is female?

Timon: It’s the girl magic. The power of women that has been overlooked and underrated and underpaid for too long. Being directed by women has given me a new perspective. I live and breathe as a man every day, but to have a woman’s perspective and have it coupled with what I may have thought, adds balance.

Tina: I will say this: the men on our show are very conscious. They’re dudes, but they’re conscious. Any one of them. If they were single and your type, they’d be a good catch. These guys talk about anything. I have had deep, meaningful conversations with each and every one of them.(she laughs) The only part about Queen Sugar that I don’t like is him. Did you hear that, Dondre?

Dondre: Ignoring you! I can’t hear you! (he brings her a choice of refrigerated and room temperature water)

Tina: This is what I love about him, whenever he jabs and does playful, horrible things, he does something like this and I think, yes, he’s a wonderful man. He has the ability to be there right with you as long as you need him. He talks in terms of how he feels, he tears up in a moment because of something that’s meaningful to him, he’s valuing someone’s appreciation or he’s giving it. Nick is our youngest cast member and the oldest in terms of spirit. Timon is brilliant and a true protector. His presence is there and he is paying attention. Which is lovely. Kofi is deep, he contemplates the deep questions of humanity, he’s a seeker.

Dondre, would you say that you are the behind-the-scenes joker on the set?

Dondre: For sure. But the close second is Tina Lifford. We should sell as a box set what happens behind the scenes, it’s very entertaining. We’re doing a drama, and if you’re dramatic and serious all day long, it will wear you out. So you have to relieve the pressure by being silly.