These days, #BlackGirlMagic is at an all time high. It’s a phenomenal time to be a black woman in Hollywood in front of or behind the camera. From “Empire” to “How To Get Away With Murder”, several of the most popular series on network television are led by black actresses. Even more gratifying is the fact that legendary media mogul Oprah Winfrey not only created a network, she’s used her influence to help elevate one of the most sought after female directors of the moment, Ava DuVernay. With Winfrey and DuVernay’s new series, “Queen Sugar”, one of the pair’s latest accomplishment is having the entire season directed by women of color.
In the highly anticipated series, which premieres Tuesday, September 6th, Dawn-Lyen Gardner plays Charley Bordelon West, who leads an affluent life in Hollywood as the manager and wife of a star athlete. Following the untimely death of her father as well as an unforeseen scandal in her marriage, Charley is forced to reconnect with her two siblings Nova (Rutina Wesley, “True Blood”) and Ralph Angel, (Kofi Siriboe, “Awkward”) in order to save their father’s sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana.
For many, Gardner may be a relatively new face but the Los Angeles native has been acting for over two decades. In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, the Juilliard School alumnae gets candid about how she overcame the urge to give up on her dreams and why “Queen Sugar” is must-see TV for the whole family.
LAS: Do you have any experiences that are akin to your character in terms of trying to do damage control and salvage a relationship? Are there any personal experiences that you drew from to play such a dynamic wife and mother?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: What I related to about my character, Charley Bordelon West, was that she’s had this identity [as a basketball wife] for such a long time and it’s not just a relationship, it’s her self-definition. When we meet her, we learn that for the last 15 years of her life she’s been building her husband’s brand. Not only is she his wife, she was his manager and she was defined by her success in that. She spent a long time structuring such a perfect life that didn’t allow room for imperfections, struggling or stumbling. What I related with the most is when her life comes crashing down, she has to redefine herself. I haven’t been married or a mother before but I have been in a relationship where I felt as if my role was a huge part of my identity and when that was challenged, I found myself lost and struggling to find my footing but it was also a moment of rebirth. In some ways, Charley’s fortress collapsing is the best thing that could have happened to her because there was no room in her life for a gray area or for the messy, sticky things that we experience with family.
LAS: Imagine if you would have given up on acting before Ava DuVernay became a director or before Oprah Winfrey launched her network. Throughout your tenure as an actress, how have you continued to motivate yourself and not give up on your dreams?
DLG: Wow, isn’t this a great moment that we’re in? I feel like the opportunity and the kind of work that’s out there right now is so tremendous. If anything, being in this position now is a testimony for the years and years of questioning whether or not I should keep going. Literally like clockwork, every two weeks I would question, is it worth it? Is this costing to much for me to pursue? Every time that I asked that question, the answer was, “it’s worth it, keep going.” These days, it’s hard to get quiet and listen to your inner voice and hear what it has to say. Every two weeks when I would have the experience, I would get quiet and ask ‘what am I here to do on this earth? What is my purpose and what do I want to contribute?’ Then I would listen for a response. I was actually looking forward to the answer being ‘Do something else!’ because I wanted a way out but I also believe that we’re multi-talented people and I’ve worn many different hats in addition to being an actress and there are still paths that I intend to pursue involving social justice work.
But the passion for acting was always strong, it would never quit. I feel like resilience and belief are the two greatest tools and gifts that you can give yourself. Believing in my vision then getting quiet so I could really see my vision has been the thing that’s really pulled me forward. Every moment has been important and necessary for me to finally arrive at a place where the material, the process, the leadership, the cast and every single element of this experience was exactly what I prayed for and worked for. It was absolutely worth it and continues to be.
LAS: With all of the options of shows for people to watch on television and online, why is “Queen Sugar” necessary viewing?
DLG: When I saw the first episode with the cast while we were half way done with shooting, I was so grateful. I was so proud to be a part of this project because this is a show that my family will see and be able to recognize everything and everyone in it. It was like crafting beautiful jewelry for people who don’t typically get to see themselves, their community and their struggle and the joy in their lives truly reflected back with depth, complexity, beauty and honor. This show goes everywhere, the conversations that it’s having are relatable to everyone. It’s talking about identity, reinventing yourself in the face of unexpected tragedy, how do you as a family come together and evolve? How do you as a community come together and face challenges. It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in watching something that I’ve been apart of. I was in awe of this thing that we’ve created that is for our community in such an intimate way and it’s inviting everyone to partake in this conversation. It was such a blessing experienced to be a part of this production. I’m sure that people will find themselves and everything they know through this show as it unfolds.