Five years ago, a drama about a southern family premiered on OWN in quietly radical fashion. It wasn’t just the lineup of all-women directors that marked Queen Sugar as a standout, though the Ava DuVernay–created series committed to that for its entire run. Rather, the show’s resolutely deliberate pace and delicate approach to explosive story lines distinguished Queen Sugar from its network counterparts from the start — and elevate it above the streaming morass to this day.
On the eve of its sixth-season finale, just days before DuVernay confirmed that Queen Sugar’s forthcoming seventh season would be its last, cast members Kofi Siriboe (Ralph Angel Bordelon), Bianca Lawson (Darla Sutton), Tina Lifford (Violet Bordelon), Tammy Townsend (Billie), and Nicholas L. Ashe (Micah West) gathered at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles to screen the episode. In a conversation led by our critic Angelica Jade Bastién, they discussed the show’s legacy, what it was like to film an account of 2020 in real time, and the paradox of telling Black stories in Hollywood. You can watch or read their conversation below.
Angelica Jade Bastién: One thing I love about this show, which shines through in every season, is that it handles very heavy topics — police violence, domestic violence, generational trauma, the relationship Black people have to the land — in really beautiful ways. What do you think Queen Sugar adds to the television landscape six seasons in?
Nicholas L. Ashe: Television at its best is a tool. Instead of picking up a book, people will watch TV. Queen Sugar has been very responsible about the stories and characters we portray to make sure people walk away with new information about how to navigate their lives. My favorite part about it is it’s not a one-episode special where we deal with race. A lot of the flowers we see in season six were planted as seeds in season one, and we get to deal with them patiently and romantically and beautifully, as you all just saw.
Some of you have been on this show for six years. Tammy’s obviously new.
Tina Lifford: But she feels like she’s been there for six years.
Tammy Townsend: Thank you, Tina!
TL: She’s been getting on our nerves like she’s been there for six years.
TT: I’ve been working every one of their nerves! That’s right!
That’s family, I love that. Tammy, you seamlessly entered the show as Billie, Prosper’s daughter. That dynamic — especially between you and Charlie, and you and Nova — is fascinating. You and Aunt Vi had some very tense conversations together. How has it been joining this cast?
TT: I was really nervous because they’ve been here. When I got there, it was the sixth season, and they’ve been there five seasons. They’re a well-oiled machine. Here I come in, and my very first scene was the scene where I find out what’s going on with my dad. She came in hot!
That was my first introduction to them, and I was like, They gonna hate me! But they didn’t. They embraced me, and Tina cracked a few jokes with me at the beginning, and that just melted all the nerves I had away. This is one of the most incredible casts I’ve ever been a part of. Before that, I was on a Disney show with Zendaya called K.C. Undercover. It’s very different, you know? Disney is for kids. To come on an adult show with adult themes and cultural, racial, social themes, it’s been a dream come true for me. Thank you so much for loving on me. I really appreciate that.
TL: You’re easy to love on.
My family’s from rural Louisiana — Loreauville, a very, very small town in Iberia Parish. Even though St. Josephine isn’t technically a real place, it feels like the small towns I knew growing up. How does it feel shooting on location in Louisiana? What do you think it adds to the show in terms of how you shape your characters?
Kofi Siriboe: Well, we film on location in New Orleans, but the anchor of the show is our farm, the land our father left us. It’s a plantation, you know? It’s easy to forget that. I know season one I was like, Damn! We’re working on a plantation! I go to work and I’m on a plantation! We’re already there to imagine and create, so naturally my imagination is going all the ways. I’m going back to then, too, you know? Then at some point, it became normal. Like everything, you get used to it. I’d say around season four, I had an experience. It was a difficult day on set, a lot of emotions, and I just went out to the field and just … I had a moment.
There’s something about Louisiana that forces you to reckon with the fact that we’re human beings on a planet that has power that we don’t.
KS: And our ancestors.
And our ancestors worked this land, lived on that land, and died on that land. There’s something beautiful and heavy about that that the show balances well.
Bianca Lawson: I feel like being in New Orleans, Louisiana in general, it’s this energetic vortex. I personally experience so many synchronicities and magic. Having the luxury of getting to film there makes my performance better because you go to our plantation and you feel like you’re in it, in the world. You leave your life, and you’re just in it. I think it holds us. It’s like a container. There’s something beautiful about it — the light, the dark. It gives it the texture and the history and the feelings.
That makes me wonder: How was filming on location? How did COVID reshape set dynamics?
BL: We quarantined in pods in a building. It was me, Kofi, Ethan, Ethan’s family, and a PA, and that was it. And I was like, “Kofi, this is going to be the best acting of our lives! It’s going to be so real!” Once we got released, getting to go to work, we’d have to come back to the building. It was like, I wish I’d never taken this place for granted — just being in the nature and being on the plantation. It felt very real because you were going through it at the same time and filming what we were going through. It was intense.
How about you, Tina? How did you feel about the COVID of it all while filming?
TL: I actually enjoyed it a lot.
TL: I did because we were in a hotel. It wasn’t just our pod; it was two pods, I think.
BL: I wanted to overlap, but we were, like, the beginning.
KS: We started it off.
TL: And then we had Thanksgiving. That’s the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever had without my family, and I was with my Queen Sugar family and I like these people a lot. I also do alone time really well, and I like hotels and I was working on a lot of stuff in my mind and head. So I loved quarantine. And I got up and went to work every day.
One of the most powerful lines in the finale comes from Darla when she says, “This is our chance to break the cycle.” She’s obviously talking about the Black farmers, but it almost felt like a thesis statement for the show. I was wondering if you could talk about filming that moment, Bianca, and I would like to hear from the rest of the cast about how that line resonated with you.
BL: I’m going to be completely 100 with you: I don’t remember that line! [Laughs.] What scene was that?
You and Kofi are at the table with the Black farmer, and you’re trying to convince him —
BL: Oh, right! The history of it — the Black farmers and what we’re doing with our new life, the baby, all of our pasts. I think that’s what we aspire to in life. The generational trauma, the ancestral … you think, Okay, we can be that point where it creates a shift. It was the last scene of the night, and we were just, like, in it. We were in it. It felt very real, and I enjoyed it. I wish I could say I remembered what I was thinking at the time.
One of the more interesting things is Nicholas’s character, Micah, wrestling with his sense of masculinity and who he is and his attraction/intimacy with his friend Isaiah. Can you talk a little bit about that plotline?
NA: I’ll say in my experience filming this show, it’s deeply cathartic. A lot of the things my character was going through, you know, we’re not too far apart in age. So at the same time he’s learning about himself and experimenting with how he wants to decorate himself and what words he wants to use, I’ve been going through that offscreen, as my co-stars can attest to. That’s a testament to Anthony Sparks, our showrunner.
TL: Love Anthony Sparks!
NA: He’s responsible for your favorite pieces of the show. I was excited about this story line in season six because it really was pieces of my childhood, my coming-of-age story, my stepping into manhood. When we released the trailer for season six, you see Micah, my character, walking down a sidewalk with another guy. We’re just walking and talking, and every comment is like, “I knew it! I knew he was gay all along! From season one!” I love that we garnered that kind of attention from everybody to be like, “I can’t wait to see how this unfolds.” But Ava and Anthony did something much more nuanced where we get to explore Black male friendship. What was it about us walking down the sidewalk that was so inherently gay? Why can’t we just talk and be intimate with one another and share that space? I love bringing that to screen because, again, television is a tool. That’s allowed. I’m the product of that camaraderie with Kofi, even.
It’s refreshing as a critic and as a Black woman to see a show associate sweetness and softness with Black masculinity. We’re living in a time where dynamics of gender are shifting, and now femininity and masculinity can hold so much more than we’ve given those ideas credit for. Kofi, can you talk about Ralph Angel’s masculinity this season and his desire to provide, which kind of gets his ass into bad situations?
KS: It’s funny. When I’m experiencing the scripts in real time, we don’t see a whole season in advance, so I’m experiencing it like episode one, episode two. It’s really triggering slash challenging because sometimes the things I’m advocating for, like, “Get him, Ralph Angel!” That be the shit where they’re like, “Yeah, see? That’s the pride!”
Like Nick was saying, I’m extremely close in age [to Ralph Angel]. I don’t have a kid yet, but the things Ralph Angel is exploring and experiencing as far as identity and rehabilitation and just trying to balance and concentrate that pride, it’s what fuels him. He needs that pride. It’s his shield in this crazy white world. But he also can’t let that pride overtake him. There’s still a level of vulnerability. People always laugh, too. They’re like, “Man, why do you always cry so much, brother?”
Life is hard! Damn, I cry all the time too!
KS: I’m like, “I’m making up for all the years I’ve never seen us emote!” And it’s not even just tears for me; it’s genuinely how I feel. Maybe I’m a crybaby? But I remember as a kid, you got a tear or two per movie for the perfect scene — but why can’t men cry? I know homies who cry for reasons and for no reason. I commend Queen Sugar for actually taking the initiative to have those conversations and give us the space to communicate what it is to us.
One story line I have to ask about is Aunt Vi and Hollywood. That is one of the great relationships in the show. Can you talk about fashioning it and what it means to you as an actor to play such a dynamic, romantic relationship?
TL: It’s an honor because there is so much about Queen Sugar that is groundbreaking. The opportunity to see this family that has not really been represented on television before, to see the nuances that a lot of us grew up with, to experience these people as people that were near and dear to our own experience — that’s a beautiful thing. My sister died two years ago; she had a brain bleed, and she was in critical care for almost three months. And her husband spent every day and every night by her side in a chair where I’m sure his back was killing him every day. That’s how much he loves her. And so for us to actually be able to see, on the big screen, love that is that committed and unconditional is a beautiful thing.
For me to have the opportunity to experience working with Omar — I mean, I’ll tell you that I knew that there was something special happening. In season one or two, there’s a scene when Vi drops something behind the counter. She goes to pick it up, and when she stands up, Hollywood is there, and he wasn’t there when she dropped it and went down. And every single time I stood up, the love Vi has for Hollywood just hit my heart. It was the most magical thing. It’s wonderful to represent such truth and such a diverse narrative and with such amazing people. And we don’t see enough of older women who are still sexy!
Ralph Angel and Darla have gone through it throughout this show, but this season was really beautiful in its own way for y’all, especially this finale as they’re about to give birth to their daughter. Can you talk about crafting this relationship through the years and how you navigate shaping it as it changes?
BL: When I did my chemistry read with Kofi and met him the first time, it was there. Our wonderful casting director, Aisha Coley, when we did the scene, she said, “Just improvise.” And we just played. It felt like the love was there, the tension, all the history. Kofi’s really easy to act with. I wish I could say there was a discussion.
KS: She’s trying to say it ain’t deep. [Laughter.]
I’m a critic. We like to make everything a big deal.
KS: For me to make it simple, she’s a Pisces as well. When I found that out, I was like, Yo, we teammates! Because I’m a Pisces. But there’s no boundaries, there’s no restrictions. Mad respect, you know? I don’t think we have to talk about a lot of things because of the trust we’ve been able to build.
BL: Being on the same frequency.
KS: We don’t have to say much. Like she said, since day one, it was just an understanding. And man, six years later, it’s still solid.
There’s been a lot of conversation about progress for Black people in Hollywood: that the time has come, we’re seeing more work, more directors. But I’m curious, as people who are actually acting and in the industry, how do you feel about where Hollywood is today with regards to celebrating and nurturing Black creativity?
KS: I feel like we celebrate it. I feel like we could do a better job in nurturing it. We celebrate people winning and us being able to tell stories, but systemically, there’s still filters. There are still people who have to green-light those stories, so naturally, our stories get diluted. We try and concentrate certain aspects of our culture, and we’re not able to talk about the nuance and the dimensional fullness of being Black. There are so many facets that we don’t touch.
If we do, it’s like … surface. But then we’re supposed to celebrate like crazy. It’s a balance because, as a Black actor, I do want to celebrate our wins, and I do want to give kudos where kudos is necessary. But the big problem is the system and how simply, statistically, we’re not being represented. I don’t care how much you see us right now; we’re not being represented. Even this little fraction of representation is still disrespectful in a lot of ways.
When you experience being Black, and even with a show like Queen Sugar, who gets to tap into it, that’s an ocean that we haven’t even discovered. It’s so deep. So I feel like celebrate for sure. But the nurturing and the challenging of the system and what that looks like, the dimension of Black Hollywood, the stories of Black lawyers, Black doctors, students, engineers, everything — we’ve seen the slave stories, we’ve seen a lot of inspiring stories — the truth of the colors that we exist in is scratching the surface.
I definitely agree. I’m a bit of a pessimist when it comes to Hollywood because I like to remind people, “Yeah, you’re seeing more Black people onscreen, but you’re only feeling like it’s a lot because you never really see us.” The levers of power when it comes to Hollywood are still controlled predominantly by white people, so how can you expect to see the fullness of the Black experience, the Latinx experience, the Asian experience, when there’s not people in power who are green-lighting these stories that reflect those communities, you know?
KS: It’s an awareness. I feel like the people have to know the truth. As Black celebrities, as Black actors, we kind of protect the system because we’re also in bed with it. And I think we can all relate to that: when it comes to the industry and being in bed with something that’s bigger than you, but you’ve still got to pay your bills. But how do we shine a light on it while still celebrating our progress but not being fooled by what they’re calling progress? Like, if it takes us this much to just get to the surface, it’s not progress once we’re on the surface. We shouldn’t have been belowground in the first place.
NA: I will say I feel things are certainly starting to shift. Ava’s initiative: We have all women directors on Queen Sugar. That’s so amazing. And now I find myself as an actor, when I get an audition for something that wants to explore my Blackness or my queerness, let’s look at this creative team. Let’s look at these executive producers and see if it’s gonna be diluted — or if this can be as true to what I know the experience to be so that we’re not perpetuating something ugly and smaller than the fullness of what we are. I think we’re in a bit of a renaissance, but there’s always further we can go.