The fourth season of OWN’s family drama Queen Sugar is powered by a book written by journalist Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley. Ominously titled Blessings and Blood, it’s about Nova’s extended family, including her father’s generation, and now that the manuscript has finally started circulating within the family, Nova is becoming a pariah, told off by her brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) and her sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). More rebukes are surely on the way.
Although Nova is consumed by anxiety, and what often reads like guilt, she’s also arrogant, defensive, and oblivious to the feelings of others. At one point, she even responds to Ralph Angel’s anger at her revelation of his son’s paternity by offering to personally explain it to the boy. It’s a complicated and often anguished story line that gives Wesley a trove of rich material to play. We talked to her about Blessings and Blood, writers’ responsibilities when telling real people’s stories, and the emotional cost of playing Nova.
Nova’s book is the source of so much dread this season!
Yeah, it’s a little bit more than dread. Ultimately, once everyone in the family has had a chance to read it, people’s reactions vary. But everyone seems to be on the side of not being ready for that kind of truth to go public.
For Nova, it’s a lesson. She has the intention of the truth being healing, but you also have to take into consideration when people are ready to go through that process themselves. The main battle this season is between Nova and her family, arguing about whether the book was the right thing to do. We saw in the first episode that she didn’t tell them about it, really, or what was actually in it. They’re upset by not knowing, and then they’re going to be upset with knowing.
It’s really tricky. I don’t really know which side I’m on. I just know that truth can be healing. But I also know that that process is different for every person.
How do you feel about Nova’s behavior and the family’s reaction to it?
I would say that I understand both sides. I understand why Nova did what she did. Because in my life, I’ve seen people who have had deep traumas and secrets revealed, and then begin to recover and heal from those things once they talk about them. And then, I’ve also seen people who just don’t want to talk about that stuff ever again. They have to end up carrying that with them for the rest of their lives, but like I said, you can’t tell someone when they’re ready to talk about it.
Because Nova’s intentions were good, I would hope that the family can try to begin to understand why she did what she did, instead of the reaction all being anger about her revealing people’s truths. She had no ill will for anyone, I think. Honestly, she’s trying to help. In the black community, that’s a beautiful thing for people to see, even though this is a hard thing. There are a lot of people out there who don’t talk about things in their lives normally, within their family, because they feel like if you don’t talk about it, it just goes away, and then it’s just not there. But trauma can be deeply rooted in you. Even if you think it’s not there, it can still be there.
What are some of the subjects that should be covered if people are going to have that kind of conversation?
One of them is permission, and ownership of story. That’s the hard part. I look at what Nova’s doing and I’m like, Don’t you have to get permission first, before you do that to someone? Or can you just write it? How does that work? I’m not personally a writer. I’m just curious about that myself.
In theory, yeah, you should get permission from everyone whose stories you tell. But there are practical limits. If I were going to write a memoir about my family, even if theoretically 99 percent of the people in the extended family were fine with it, what if one guy — let’s call him Uncle Charlie — wasn’t? Do I not publish the book because I couldn’t get Uncle Charlie to sign off?
Right. What do you do then?
I don’t even know the answer to that myself.
Yeah, it’s hard. I was going to say there’s no right or wrong, but I think there is. ‘Cause a lot of people really have strong feelings about the permission part of it. You did not ask my permission to use my experience. My experience is not being filtered through your experience.
But then, it’s Nova’s perspective, and she’s a writer, so she’s wondering why she can’t write about something that she’s experienced through someone in her family? You know what I’m saying?
Yes. I’ve had many instances where I’ve convinced people to let me tell their story. Because I really wanted to get the story, I assured them: “In the end, you’ll be glad you did this.” Some people said, “Yes, thank you. I’m so glad that I let you talk me into telling my story.” But there have been other people who’ve said, “I wish I’d never met you.”
I totally get that. I get that. I used to say that Nova is a journalist at the end of the day. But she was the type of journalist that, in her community in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, people would tell their story to her because they trust her that much, as a woman in the community, and also as a writer who is going to get it right. They know she’s not going to switch the words around, she’s not going to change it up. She’s actually going to tell your story how it’s supposed to be told.
But I feel like now, this is the one time where people might kind of go, Huh. I don’t know if I trust her anymore. Because now she’s done something without asking anyone in her family.
Does the fact that she hasn’t personally notified members of her family about what’s coming indicate, perhaps, a degree of guilt on her part, or fear that she’s done the wrong thing?
Yeah, possibly. It’s always been in the back of her head. Since last season, we saw her writing quotes on the manuscript to give out to the family. And then we came to the beginning of this season, and clearly she did not deliver the manuscripts.
Have you ever taken something from somebody’s life to use in one of your performances?
I’m sure I have, subconsciously.
Did they even know that you did it? And if so, what was their reaction?
No, they didn’t know that I did it. But it’s done in a way where no one would ever know that I’m stealing from my friend, or this woman that I met on the corner one day.
That’s the beautiful thing about acting and creating characters. We get specific, drawing on someone with someone who exists in real life, but when we’re just making up people from that point on, it means you have the opportunity to take bits and pieces without permission because you’re gonna mix it with all these other things.
Now if I were playing someone from real life, and met that person in real life, and they were doing some specific thing, I’d ask, “Would you mind if I do that little thing you do when I play you? There’s this thing you do with your hand.” I would actually ask. Because you know, I wouldn’t want somebody to see their life portrayed and be like, “What is she doing? I never do that. I don’t talk like that.”
Even if your assignment is to play a real person, you’d still ask permission to build that person out as a character.
It’s about respect. Respecting someone else’s life experience and their truth.
When people who watch Queen Sugar meet you in person, what do they say about Nova? How do they describe her?
I meet a lot of women who are Nova themselves, in their real lives. They are happy to see the show and see a sense of familiarity in themselves, and see themselves reflected back. And in a truthful way. I meet a lot of women who just love Nova’s rawness, and love that nothing about her is sugarcoated. What you see is what you get.
I also love that people will judge Nova, sometimes harshly, but they can’t help but love her.
Do they love her right now?
A lot of people who watch the show are mad at Nova right now! Everyone’s picking their sides.
How does that make you feel, as a performer?
It’s just funny to me. I just smile and laugh because I have to remind them that I’m not Nova; I’m Rutina. People are like, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you did that!” And I’m like, “I didn’t do that. Nova did that!”
But at least they’re engaged. There aren’t a lot of shows that can do that to an audience, that can really get under people’s skin. Nova gets under people’s skin.
How does it feel inhabiting Nova? I mean physically. How does it feel different from being Rutina?
I feel a lot of pressure being Nova. Her messiness, which I love, is exhausting. Sometimes I want her to just be quiet and have a stable moment and keep her feet grounded. But it’s also fun because she’s very active in me. She activates me. I love that she’s unpredictable. I love the mess that is Nova because you never know where she’s going to go.
And isn’t that life? You never really know what’s going to happen.