NEW YORK – The sisters of Queen Sugar look like the women you already know. Rutina Wesley, who plays Nova Bordelon, looks like a pretty Barbie in person, all fine features, slim figure and gorgeous skin. Dawn Lyen Gardner who plays Charley Bordelon West, is lighter-skinned with broader features. They are dressed much like their characters would be – Rutina, boho chic in a flowing, flowery dress and Dawn, sexy but polished in a bright pink short dress.
Just like real-life sisters, the two are different in complexion, stature, body type and personality but on Queen Sugar, despite their differences, you know they’d go to war for the other. In their real-life relationship, the two Julliard grads are close as well.
Although they were in different years at the famed New York City arts school, they once worked together on a production of For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. So their relationship runs deep and it shows. We caught up with them in New York City to talk Queen Sugar, colorism and more.
What I love about Queen Sugar is that it’s not a big deal that there’s a brown-skinned sister and a light-skinned sister and a brown-skinned brother because it’s implied that the audience understands that that’s common in Black families. Dawn, in the discussion earlier, you referenced the challenges you’ve had as an actress and Rutina, so have you. But why, considering that we all know someone who looks like you both in our families or among our friends. How do you think that colorism plays into the show and into your careers?
RUTINA WESLEY: For me, being a dark-skinned Black actress, I always felt even though I had Viola (Davis) and Angela (Bassett) they still had to fight, so I would see their fight. But as time went on and they got more roles and more fleshed-out roles, playing women who were fully-fleshed; it just increased my hope. And then when Ava can create a character like Nova – because I know a lot of Nova’s – because you can’t pin down a woman who can do a little bit of everything. A lot of times in our shows and our programming, we don’t show true reflections of who we are. So I love seeing a true reflection of a Black sistah on television. In the opening scene of the first episode, you see a Black woman with locs. The first thing you see is the locs and then you see skin, and tone and body and all those things we don’t take time to celebrate. We’re all here and we each should be seen.
DAWN LYEN GARDNER: One of the reasons that I was so thrilled and excited was that we knew we were playing sisters but we didn’t know what the backstory was and we didn’t know what the explanation was, but it didn’t matter. That’s the experience of my life as a Black woman. That’s the experience of my family. That we are in the same family and we are enmeshed in each others lives and when they hurt, I hurt. So when I found out that my very darker-skinned cousin was teased when she was younger, I lost it.
I wanted to go fight them before she did. So for me, as a lighter-skinned woman of color in this business, my journey started after school with people telling me ‘I don’t know where to put you.’ ‘You’re not Black enough. You’re not this or that enough.’ For the first five years, I internalized it. I already lived as a biracial woman, growing up feeling like I’m not accepted here or there, but that was part of my Black experience. Once I decided to focus on what do I care about, what do I have to say, what moves me and what do I want people to be moved by, once I asked that question it led me here. Different colors, same family. Different colors, lots of issues, lots of pain around that, same family. It was truly a dream for me to be engaged in a project that was having that conversation.
MORE FROM DAWN LYEN:
My dad is Black and my mother is Chinese. It’s not a common mix, so on top of feeling like I’m already mixed in a way that’s not “normal” …and it wasn’t alienation from my family. My family loved us and loved each other. They hang out with each other. They hang out without us, they don’t care. [Laughs] I think to watch that growing up, it really informed who I was. I’m endlessly fascinated by these questions of race and culture and otherness. But it also made me very mission driven in terms of expanding our ideas of culture and identity. I think we as Black people, part of the joy of this show, is finally feeling like other people are seeing us fully realized and we’re seeing other people seeing us as fully realized and something about that dynamic is transformative.
RUTINA’S BEAUTY TIPS:
I don’t like makeup. But a trick I just learned recently is to take your face moisturizer in the shower with you, and in the shower, actually put the moisturizer on, and don’t touch it, and then you actually wait for your face to dry so the water is sealed in and then you rub that moisturizer in and then put on your sunscreen. I’ve been doing it for the past year and a half and I think it’s kept my skin soft. I would tell my sisters out there to love the skin you’re in and look at the mirror at yourself and love on yourself. Look at those faces, those eyes and love it. It took me playing a woman named Nova to really love myself.