Season three of Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed series Queen Sugar — which has been renewed for a fourth season — has been emotionally introspective with shocking revelations, growing pains, vulnerability and uncovering truths. (Read episodic reviews here).
Before tomorrow’s season finale, actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who plays the fierce Charley Bordelon, reflected on the journey of her character. Charley has led the charge of overthrowing a sugar cane empire to bring freedom to the oppressed in her hometown of St. Josephine, Louisiana. Gardner praises her for pressing onward in “the good fight with all the justice” but says she’ll be forced to come to terms with her intentions for it.
Since the series premiere in 2016, Charley’s evolution has continued to reveal her duality she has used to her advantage and the weight of the mantle she carries. Fighting to help the black farmers while sitting at the table of the enemy to do so all while personally enduring the betrayals of her ex-husband, ex-boyfriend, and sister, her son’s defiance, and taking care of her late father’s friend Prosper.
Queen Sugar fans have taken to social media to voice their frustration with the burdens the middle Bordelon sibling has shouldered, and for Gardner that has moved her.
“I think what’s been interesting for me is to see how invested people are in Charley’s happiness, which I’m grateful for because season one there was so much criticism of her. There were times I was wondering if people were rooting for her,” Gardner, 36, said. “I was glad to encounter that sort of feedback because that means people are finding themselves in her and they’re relating to her path. I appreciate it and definitely am grateful to see that kind of engagement and investment. I want the same for her too.”
I spoke with Gardner about the season, her thoughts on the controversial Remy and Nova relationship, the “strong black woman” narrative, and more.
Charley has endured so much in season three. What are your thoughts on her progression and the challenges she has faced?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: The interesting thing is that I feel proud of her this season and it’s a weird thing to say. I [really feel] something of a shepherd to her and I feel like she really has endured a lot. I think I had moments, you know, through reading scripts, and I was asking, “How much more can she take?!” [Laughs.] How much more can this woman take? And the answer I sort of came back to was a lot. This is a woman built for this journey and my reminder of this season when the writers give me such interesting perspectives and so many things to deal with, she’s a bit of a superhero in that way. She has that epic hero ability. She puts on the cape. She’s not without her faults and flaws, and that’s what I love about her. That cape has rips and tears.
It’s just her native, innate place to start from is, “I can handle it. I can do it.” Then she sorts of leaps off the cliff and builds a parachute on the way down. It’s been such a treat to embody that because, you know, how many of us really do that in life? Can leap without any fear and just figure out how to maneuver. Not just in life but how to actually accomplish what they’re setting out to accomplish. It’s been pretty amazing.
Stepping into her world and seeing how much she has on her plate, how do you as an actress maintain hope for Charley?
Gardner: Where I started with her was very important to me. What happened in season one was necessary. Her life [sort of] exploding was necessary for her to become the person she needed to become. Everything that happens next, really that first episode from Davis’ betrayal to her father’s death, all of that happening when it did. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if she would’ve stepped into whom she would become and what she would do if she would’ve stayed in this comfortable, structured, perfect life. So, I see all of this as a journey that is important to who this woman is and that’s actually what grounds me through it.
Do the emotional burdens take a toll on you after a while?
Gardner: I’m not going to lie, it’s exhausting [Laughs.] As I found myself really exhausted this season emotionally, just exhausted, I also feel like the fire we’re presented in life refine us. And I think it’s important that she’s been back home and literally in the south, and in the location of where her ancestors who worked the land. I know for myself, honestly, I think about my ancestors and I think about my family. I really do. I’m very similar to Charley in that most of what I do is for my family.
Being in the south on that land and you ask that question, “How much more can she handle?” I mean, [you] look around and realize that she’s got to. It’s time for her to step up to a bigger version of herself in every way and her circumstances call her to that. Her family and her community are calling her to that. That’s what really kept me going.
In our last interview, one of the poignant comments you made about Charley was about her armor as a black woman. Who she is when she wears it and who she is when she takes it off. What have you continued to learn from her because of this trait and what’s both empowering and heartbreaking about it?
Gardner: I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m proud of her as her shepherd is because I think her relationship with that is changing. I think her willingness to share herself with her armor off is changing and one of the most memorable examples of that, for me, was her reaching out after Davis dropped that news about his secret child. To me, that was actually really important is that she did call. You know, they didn’t pick up or she couldn’t reach anyone but she called. She called everyone. And then she didn’t reach who she needed to and the rest of the episode happened as it happened but I actually think that’s a pretty significant thing. She didn’t go it alone, she didn’t at least intend to. She was reaching out and trying to say, “I’m in pain” and this is what it looks likes, and that’s actually pretty significant.
So, she’s tricky because she’s no one’s victim, ever. She doesn’t view herself that way and no matter what is happening she’s not asking the question, “Why does this keep happening?” She’s not asking that question, it’s just not in her brain. So, I think that it’s an important part of how she designs herself and how she views herself and how she views the world and maybe part of what has increased her resilience. She really doesn’t spend time thinking of herself as being put through the ringer. She’s much more focused on what she’s doing to accomplish through. At least you’ve seen her processing it in real time what’s happening and maybe that’s part of why she doesn’t see herself as a victim is that she gives attention to trying to understand what’s going on and why. At least she’s processing it and feeling it this time. It’s not buried somewhere.
One of the intense moments in that episode “A Little Lower Than Angels” was Davis revealing that he had a secret daughter during their marriage. It completely blind-sided her. What conversations did you and Timon Kyle Durrett have about that moment?
Gardner: We just didn’t have a lot of conversations about it and I think part of that is that there’s so much history between Charley and Davis. So much that we played out, him and me, there was a very limited conversation. We both were processing it I think. I mean, he had to wrap his mind around it too and it wasn’t something he knew before this season. So, it really was him figuring out how to navigate his character. To process this news, to have to stand in front of someone else and say it out loud and deal with the repercussions. Deal with the consequences emotionally of that kind of devastation. I would have to take my hat off to him because to be the bearer of that news is no easy task.
And because of that news, Charley ends up at a bar drinking, dancing and later quietly crying in the arms of Jacob Boudreaux. Your performance during that moment was so powerful and praised by viewers. What was your experience shooting that scene?
Gardner: I have to shout out Lea Coco who plays Jacob. He was so generous and he understood having read the episode how much I was navigating as an actor. He was completely down with what I needed as an actor, whatever space I needed, whatever he could do. It was such a dance really between the two of us as actors and he really gave me exactly what I needed to do that scene. I remember thanking him afterward because it’s so important. That episode…I actually fought that episode. [Laughs.]
Gardner: I talked to everyone through the leadership about it because when I read it my first response — it was a complete body response — it was nauseous. I mean, I actually vomited cause my whole being was so…I didn’t know what to do, what to feel. I was so turned around and mostly because it felt like such a betrayal of her soul. Knowing this was someone who has stood on her father’s porch a year ago and said, “I’m coming for your land.” And I had no regrets about it and his family effectively was a part of her father’s death, the oppression. It was so much but it has become my favorite episode of the season. It wasn’t until I talked to Ava [DuVernay] that I really understood what she was wanting to explore which was about control. I think I was nervous that it would read only like, “Charley goes on a date with Jacob Boudreaux.”
Another controversy of the season was Nova (Rutina Wesley) and Charley’s ex Remy (Dondre L. Whitfield) kissing and getting closer. What are your thoughts about that?
Gardner: Think that the big theme of the season has been betrayal across the board and I think that that’s an interesting thing to explore in a show that’s really about family, strength, and togetherness. From Remy and Nova and their betrayal to Davis’ betrayal, to even Micah in some ways is a betrayal [with] his promises of what was going to happen this year and his departure from that. And Charley has actually had her own betrayal. She did not tell the farmers what was going on with the Landrys and it wasn’t even a lie by omission. It really was putting on a face that things are alright and continuing on as if they are like I still owned the mill. There’s a betrayal in that. And I think that’s what we’re seeing towards the finale is her confronting the parts of her actions that was a betrayal to herself but to the farmers, and her family.
I really do see a lot of her journey even the Remy-Nova stuff as necessary. You can’t control who you click with and, in their case, in some way just fall for. That’s not as easy and clear-cut of a conversation or experience as we want it to be. It’s not comfortable. In ways that part of the season with Nova’s relationship and the moments with Charley and Jacob. They’re important. They ask us to examine what our reactions to it and why and to look at why we’re uncomfortable and I think it might not be because we’re uncomfortable with it and it might not be just because we don’t like something but because it actually feels familiar and knowable. And we judge it but it doesn’t mean that we don’t know it.
In the midst of Charley’s issues with the men on the show, Queen Sugar has introduced Romero (Walter Perez) when the two met outside of a club. Though she said that she can’t trust anyone, do you think there’s potential for something more? Even if he’s just a companion?
Gardner: Well, the beautiful thing about Romero is that he’s completely outside of the rest of her life. He’s outside of the drama happening with the Landrys, outside of her family. No one knows him. I think that she’s at least able to exhale in a way that I don’t know if she’s able to exhale around anyone else. That’s such a relief I think for the audience to exhale with her for a moment [Laughs.] I very much feel there’s a possibility there because he shows up. He’s someone who doesn’t need anything from her. I don’t know if she’s experienced that to this degree. I think with Remy that was the case as well but he was so much so involved with the land and her family and her father. So, this is someone who’s really outside all of that and truly is simply just showing up and that’s what he does. I think that there’s a possibility there for sure and he ain’t bad to look at [Laughs.]
Charley’s plan to take down Sam Landry (David Jensen), who has uprooted black farmers from their land, uncovers a saddening discovery: he’s building a prison. It adds on to the legacy of oppression of the land that once held slaves and could potentially house prisoners. How did you feel about that and the way the show approaches this issue?
Gardner: It’s been a really incredible season and the way that the writers linked the oppression of history to the oppression of today. Hats off to Kat Candler, our show-runner, for kneading that charge into the story line. Louisiana is literally the world capital of incarceration. Of the world. That’s a huge statement and statistic and there is a relationship in Louisiana, a reality of profit. There’s a moment in the season when Micah and his friends are sort of playing on the levee and one of his friends, Ant, says, “My brother is in there.” And the camera goes over to a prison and you realize how sort of normalize this prison industrial complex is because it’s a part of business. It’s literally a business, it’s part of the economy. It’s an important conversation not just about the family and the land being taken but [our] relationship to putting people in cages for profit and then the repercussions to when the percentage of those people are black. That’s a serious conversation about what the intentions of those who work to build, own, and operate those prisons. It’s a huge conversation. I’m just proud that we’ve taken it on. It’s truly realistic about issues in the south, particularly in Louisiana.
This interview has been edited and condensed.