NEW YORK — The new family drama “Queen Sugar” follows three estranged siblings in a rural Louisiana town as they struggle to make sense of their lives while preserving a family legacy: a failing sugar-cane farm.
Nova (Rutina Wesley, “True Blood”) is a fiery journalist and activist. Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner, “Unforgettable”) is the wife and no-nonsense manager of an NBA star. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe, “Awkward”) is a devoted young father with a criminal past.
The series, which premieres on OWN network Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT, is based on the novel by Natalie Baszile, and is executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay (the acclaimed filmmaker of the Oscar-nominated “Selma” and a new documentary, “The 13th”), who is also the series’ creator as well as one of its writers and directors.
Here, in edited remarks, is what DuVernay and her three stars had to say recently about “Queen Sugar”:
— WHY THIS PROJECT?
“I love good family dramas,” said DuVernay. “Not super plot-driven, but character-driven stories. And I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish I could see that with some black folk.'”
A while back, Winfrey handed her Baszile’s novel to read on holiday.
“Oprah sent me to Maui,” DuVernay laughed, “and I ended up with work.”
The book — up close and personal, yet broad in scope — sparked the series she had always wanted to see.
“Charley is dealing with her family in the South while she’s pursuing a professional life in Los Angeles. With Ralph Angel, what a great opportunity to get to know a formerly incarcerated black man — the second-class citizens we make them. And in this incredible Black Lives Matter moment, which I think parallels in so many ways the civil rights movement, it’s incredible to have a character in Nova who embodies that spirit.
“I fell in love with the possibilities.”
— GROWING POSSIBILITIES
DuVernay first envisioned “Queen Sugar” as an 8-episode limited series. Then it grew to 13 episodes. Then it was picked up for a 16-episode second season, with no end in sight.
One challenge for DuVernay in adapting to open-ended series TV: keeping audiences hooked from week to week — or even during each commercial break.
“Most people aren’t going to walk out of a theater, but it’s really easy for them to turn to another channel,” she noted. “I knew there had to be heightened moments which are probably bigger than I usually do. I had to find the humanity within the more melodramatic moments, and it was important to find actors that could bring reality to situations that might otherwise feel hyper-real.
“But I’m really married to this project,” she added. “I have story ideas for Season 4!”
— TRUTH FROM FICTION
“Ava is incredibly loyal and committed to story,” Dawn-Lyen Gardner said. “She really is interested not just in turning out episodes — she is dedicated to the truth of story, to the truth of character, to the truth of a world that our show is creating.”
Rutina Wesley: “Ava’s very detailed in her work, as we see in her films, so she just brought that right to TV. She creates such a safe environment, and her intention — not just about the show, but the way that we’re gonna create it — is so strong that it guides everything.”
Kofi Siriboe: “It seems so personal, the story she wants to tell and what she wants people to get from it.”
“We’re making sure every character has a life,” DuVernay agreed. “We’re ‘pretending life,’ so we have to approximate the human condition. Within the epic, what is the intimate moment that makes it matter?”
— EVERYONE MIRRORED
Gardner: “The series is so generous with sharing very specific cultural realities and cultural nuances, and I think in that specificity people are going to see themselves, see something universal. The series shares these very intimate details and dynamics that people who aren’t African-American maybe wouldn’t be privy to. But once they experience it, I think they will recognize it.”
“Just watch it with open eyes,” said Siriboe, “and if you can’t see yourself, then see your mother, your sister, your uncle. Just see the people around you in this world that you usually would just walk by. Watch it from here” — he tapped his chest — “and you’ll get something from it.”
“We experience those stories through actors who don’t look like us and don’t share our experience — and yet we still sink into the story,” DuVernay said. “People of color have been doing that forever!
“Why don’t people who AREN’T of color try it for a little while?” proposed the auteur of this equal-opportunity new series. “Come join us!”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore