Queen Sugar‘s characters Ralph Angel and Darla, Hollywood and Vi are not the only love getting us high. When it comes to the hit OWN series, Louisiana is a whole vibe. While much of the drama unfolds about an hour out from the city in Vacherie, where the fictional St. Josephine Parish or simply St. Joe’s comes alive, with Blackberry Farms and St. Joseph Plantation serving as the incredible
HEART & SOUL
Via their characters Ralph Angel and Darla, Queen Sugar actors Kofi Siriboe and Bianca Lawson brought one of the most moving love stories to television. Here, the sensual duo break down the beauty of Black love, in its many complexities and iterations, as it pertains to the hit series’ forthcoming final season.
Story by Ronda Racha Penrice
Photography by Keith Major
The relationship between Ralph Angel Bordelon and Darla Sutton on OWN’s award-winning series Queen Sugar didn’t start out as #BlackLoveGoals. When their rocky history was introduced in the show’s first season, for many viewers, the characters ending up together—let alone getting married—wasn’t even a remote possibility. Darla, we learned, had a history of drug addiction that had put Blue, the couple’s son, in grave danger. On the heels of that trauma, she was not welcomed by most in the Bordelon household. However, Ralph Angel, an ex-convict, who was in the throes of self-discovery, wasn’t exactly father of the year.
And though the main drama of Queen Sugar—the series created by Ava DuVernay at the behest of Oprah Winfrey, who was enthralled by Natalie Baszile’s novel—revolves around the ongoing efforts of the Bordelon clan (Ralph Angel, his sisters Nova and Charley, along with her son Micah, their aunt Vi and Vi’s husband “Hollywood”) to protect their farm just outside New Orleans after their father Ernest’s death, Ralph Angel’s sultry relationship with Darla has gained momentum over time. The couples’ allure, according to lead actress Bianca Lawson, who plays Darla, lies in the real-life messiness of their love. “It’s not so perfect,” she explains. “It’s not this romanticized TV relationship.”
What it is she shares is more reflective of where most of us are or have been. “I think individually they have gone through so many things. I think that there’s hope that no matter how bad things get, that they can get better, and be better than they ever were,” reasons Lawson.
“You can get messy with someone and fight and scream and have these secrets come to light; yet, still find your way back to each other,” she continues. “This person knows everything about you. He knows the worst thing about you and loves you, accepts you and is there for you. I think that’s what most people want. They want to feel really seen. And not just seen in this ideal way, but [in the way where] somebody knows all the skeletons, all the dark alleys and all of the worst things you’ve ever done; yet, they understand you, they accept you and they love you. You don’t have to hide anything. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not.”
“I just try to be as honest as I can when playing Darla, whatever that looks like,” adds the actress. “If people love it or they hate it, I’m just trying to do justice to her journey.”
You can get messy with someone and fight and scream and have these secrets come to light; yet, still find your way back to each other.
Over the show’s tenure, Darla and Ralph Angel have journeyed towards their fuller selves. For this seventh and final season, they are not only married but also have welcomed a baby girl to their family, a little sister for Blue. Surprisingly, Darla wasn’t intended to be in the series for the long haul. “When I first signed up, I was only supposed to be on five episodes in more of a villain role, in which my character returns and sues for custody of her son,” explains Lawson, adding that her character was also supposed to have had a love affair with someone other than Ralph Angel.
However, instead of that timeline, Darla and Ralph Angel’s storyline organically took on a life of its own. “Maybe, Ava DuVernay in her mind [knew what was going to happen], but I didn’t know that. I just thought I was coming on for a couple of episodes,” reveals Lawson.
“Love is such a dimensional element. We first meet Darla and Ralph Angel in a dysfunctional place. We don’t know much about them, but we’re learning their story through their pain,” explains Queen Sugar star Kofi Siriboe, who plays Ralph Angel. “And just to see, that even through that pain, the love still existed and that, whether they knew it or not, the pain connected them only because love was the source.”
Not often are Black folks privy to a man loving a woman through her faults in the way that Ralph Angel has loved Darla. On the big and small screens, as well as in real life, the more typical Black love narrative is of the “ride-or-die” chick standing by her man, no matter what. The evolving storyline, over the last six seasons, of Ralph Angel eventually forgiving Darla for her faults, as well as slowly taking accountability for his own, is unprecedented for television.
“I just think it creates balance,” Siriboe says of his character’s growth and story arc. “If we’re really trying to expand and evolve as human beings—as men, as women—it’s definitely necessary to represent all of the dimensions and layers of relationships. It’s imbalanced how we see men always in a certain way, and women in a certain way. So just switching the roles and taking ownership of the narrative—while still being true and authentic—I think that’s powerful.”
As Lawson notes, Darla and Ralph Angel are still standing because while they have gone through many rough patches, their love for each other has never gone away. “There were times that they hated each other. They’ve been so angry at each other—disappointed and betrayed. However, I don’t think they’ve ever stopped loving each other,” she says. “I feel like there’s a real friendship between them and that they’re each other’s best friends.”
It’s necessary to represent all of the dimensions and layers of relationships. Taking ownership of the narrative—while still being true and authentic [is] powerful.
For Siriboe, one of the greatest payoffs comes from witnessing the on-screen couple tackle their conscious and unconscious dysfunction and toxicity. “I think they represent what transformation looks like,” he shares. “It’s not always pretty, but it’s necessary. They did the work. We watched them as they shed the pieces of themselves that kept them from each other while growing into awareness to unite.”
“[Ralph Angel and I] have different vibes. But, at the same time, being young, Black and human, there’s a lot of commonalities such as the trials of navigating family, navigating ownership, and trying to discover independence while still having some time for romance,” reflects the actor on the empowering impact the role has had on his own personal growth. “I observed him become aware of himself, become aware of parts of himself that he wasn’t aware of, and actually take the steps to adjust those things and release the things he needed to release to expand and to be a man.”
[Ralph Angel and I] have different vibes. But, being young, Black and human, there’s a lot of commonalities such as the trials of navigating family, navigating ownership, and trying to discover independence while still having some time for romance.
The series’ leads also admit it isn’t often easy separating their personal views from their characters. “I don’t always agree with Ralph Angel or Darla,” confesses Siriboe. “It’s been a challenge to put my personal opinions to the side to be true to the characters, their discovery and the story.” Yet, on the flip side, he sometimes finds his Queen Sugar world seeping into his personal views. “I’ll go home and might be pondering on a thought, and I might think it’s my thought, but it’s actually something that’s residual from Ralph Angel and Darla’s last conversation—so it kind of crosses the line.”
For Lawson, playing Darla over time has impacted her personal life in unexpected ways as well, especially this last season. “I’ve gotten to use things that I’ve been going through and channel it into her,” says the actress. “Darla’s growing so much that she’s kind of pulling things out of me that maybe I haven’t expressed enough or that I need to.”
The lead actors also share a personal bond in real life that helps ground their series counterparts in their fictional love. “That’s my OG,” says the 28 year-old actor of his co-star, who is over a decade his senior. “She’s also a fellow Pisces and just a good friend. We’ve spent so much time being vulnerable together, challenging each other. And just knowing that you have a partner who’s going to catch you, whether you’re flying or falling, is a blessing.”
I think our real friendship gets into the characters somehow. I can tell [KOFI] anything, and I think he feels the same way.
Their friendship has been a source of strength for Lawson as well. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and he’s a little bit newer, but sometimes it’s also just people’s soul and people’s heart. You connect with who you connect with for whatever reason and that’s beyond age or experience,” says the veteran performer, whose previous TV credits include roles on classic series such as Sister, Sister, Saved By the Bell: The New Class, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars.
While quarantining during season five, Lawson notes that she was really going through it personally and Siriboe would come and check on her every evening to ensure that she was fine. “One night this thing happened, and I told him how I was so devastated. I was literally sitting on the floor of my hotel room with smeared makeup on my face from crying and he sat there with me [and comforted me],” she marvels. “I think our real friendship gets into the characters somehow. I can tell him anything, and I think he feels the same way.”
[bianca and i] have spent so much time being vulnerable together, challenging each other. knowing that you have a partner who’s going to catch you, whether you’re flying or falling, is a blessing.
The pair credit the intimacy that the show captures between their on-screen counterparts to DuVernay’s game-changing female directors-only mandate for the series. “I think that’s a part of the chemistry of Queen Sugar,” says Siriboe. “Women have a very sensual perspective on life. They have a different tempo that they naturally move to. And I’ve been blessed to see all the different types of women—from my mom to my best friends—their different experiences, cultures and rhythms; however, there’s a thread, a connection through all of it.”
Lawson also shares that she found a creative freedom in working with female directors that she’s never experienced before. “When you have to go to some of the emotional places that we have to go to [as actors], you have to have a sense of trust and safety,” she explains. “I think when you feel safe and you trust that these people have your back, you’re freer to bare your soul.”
And after seven seasons, the time has come for the actors to say goodbye to Queen Sugar. Siriboe is understandably torn. “I feel all the emotions. I’m excited. I’m sad. I don’t even know how to feel,” he admits. The series’ crew, those on screen and off, have become his family. Louisiana, where he spent his entire first year of the pandemic’s lockdown, has become home. Lawson feels similarly.
When you have to go to some of the emotional places that we have to go to [as actors], you have to have a sense of trust and safety.
Regarding the series’ finale, Siriboe shares that there is a completion to Ralph Angel, while also pointing out that “nothing is ever complete.” Instead, “[we] get a peek into the future and what’s possible,” he continues. “How he’s ending is nowhere near where he started. He’s the same person, but different—and that sounds real to me.”
Indeed, Ralph Angel is finally able to fully love Darla because, as Siriboe observes, he has done the work of creating independence for himself. By answering life’s hard questions of creating identity outside of his family‘s legacy and outside of his own relationship, he has found his own sense of peace. “That independence,” stresses Siriboe, “is what gives him the confidence, the space and the clarity to be a better partner. It also allows him to realize that Darla’s also on an independent journey.”
“I love that they talk about things and that Ralph Angel’s really listening to her ideas,” adds Lawson of how their characters have learned to communicate with each other over the series’ course. “They have become a little team. And despite all the heavy, dark, dramatic things that have happened in their lives, there is still joy. There is still happiness.”
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN
PHOTO DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
VIDEO DP CALVIN BLUE
VIDEO 2ND CAMERA BLAZE HERU
VIDEO AUDIO GEORGE INGMIRE
VIDEO EDITOR MEGA MEDIA
STYLIST ADE SAMUEL
MARKET EDITOR VICTOR QUNNEULL VAUGHNS
MAKEUP ARTIST/GROOMER ALANA WRIGHT
HAIR STYLIST ASHANTI LATION
BARBER WAYNE JOLLA
PHOTO ASSISTANTS OSCAR CRUZ, TIM JONES
DIGITAL TECH CRAIG MULCAHY
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
PRODUCTION KATHERINE PRATO PRODUCTIONS
PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS VAL DAGRAIN, STEFAN BYRD
MorE FROM THE AUGUST DIGITAL COVER EXPERIENCE
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