Photo: Skip Bolen (OWN)
There’s a scene in the latest episode, “Oh Mamere,” of season 4 of Queen Sugar that is maddening to watch. In it, Darla Sutton (I legit had to look up her character’s last name; I’m not sure I’ve heard it uttered a single time on the show), played by fountain of youth-er Bianca Lawson, is sitting in a restaurant as her friend from a life long since past recounts in vivid, amused detail the night, as it turns out, that Darla was raped and her son Blue was conceived.
Her friend, of course, doesn’t know this about Blue. What she does know, however, is that she and Darla were so trashed from taking a cocktail of drugs and drinks that Darla ended up having non-consensual sex with two separate men that night. In short, her friend Jordan describes to Darla her rape with a sort of detached, entertained glee that illustrates just how trash a friend she is and how two people who experienced in the same event can have two entirely different life-altering outcomes. For Jordan, it was the apex of her partying; for Darla, it was a catalyst for a spiral into prostitution, drug use, addiction and a yearslong battle to regain a life of normalcy and an opportunity to be a parent to Blue.
Darla’s story is a deep and heavy one, and Lawson’s portrayal of her is outstanding, especially this season, as she has to dig deep into a character in tremendous turmoil. Lawson told me that she pulled from her own life, having family members who have dealt with addiction, along with tremendous research to get the role and story right.
“It’s like pulling from several things without realizing you’re pulling from several things. With this episode, almost like a vessel and the entirety of your life; your knowledge, your feelings, your experiences are all coming together in a way to allow you to trust yourself.,” said Lawson, who I spoke to by phone on Monday.
Darla has struggled and succeeded over the course of the four seasons of Queen Sugar. She’s gone from Bordelon family pariah to becoming gainfully employed, a successful co-parent with Ralph Angel (after telling him she wasn’t sure if he was Blue’s father because of what she knew—to that point—about that night in D.C.), dating and living happily. And then Nova Bordelon releases her best-selling book, Blessing and Blood, which has an entire chapter devoted to the worst chapter, no pun intended, in Darla’s life AND one that outs the fact that Ralph Angel isn’t her son’s father.
This would be enough to crack even the strongest person to relapse, but Darla is doing her best to hold strong. We see her in the prior week’s episode staring down a bottle of liquor, fighting her demons, trying not to lose the battle. The conversation with her friend, though, was a bridge too far. It sent her to a bar where she went shot after shot until she was discovered wandering randomly in a park in St. Joe’s by Aunt Vi, who was out for a run.
Aunt Vi, who is dealing with her own issues—many of which she had the chance to stuff into the recesses of her mind—isn’t the biggest fan of Darla for various reasons. But she comes to Darla’s aid and has her own reckoning with the fact that she’s been allowing her past (one that included her own rape at the hands of her then-husband, Jimmy Dale) to control her, and how she and Darla both need to move forward and not allow the past to ruin the bright futures they have ahead of them. It was touching to see them sharing a moment because of just how much they’ve both had to go through to get where they are. Aunt Vi doesn’t have the addiction issues that Darla has, but that may just be by the grace of God. They have both dealt with significant traumatic issues in life and realize that their truths and support systems will be their only way of moving forward.
Now that she actually knows, Darla ends up telling Ralph Angel what happened to her that night in D.C., afraid of what he will think and what will happen next. And Ralph Angel, who is REMARKABLY the most non-stereotypical black man on the planet (literally, the more you find out about what kind of man Ralph Angel is the more amazing it is how openminded and genuine he is), doubles down on his support for her.
To call the episode heavy is an understatement. I wondered how Lawson handled her own self-care after playing such a heavy role in an episode that calls for so much emotionally. “Sometimes you have to take a minute after; sometimes you go back to a place that’s familiar to you,” she said.
I needed about an hour after watching the episode, so that speaks to the level of professionalism she and others bring to the roles when they know how to get back to one, as Brian McKnight might say.
In this same episode, we see Charley and Nova attempt to tend to their fractured relationship, coming to the realization that maybe they don’t even really know one another. Micah has another run-in with an overzealous police officer. Considering what Micah has gone through, he is also in a fragile place and is tired and shaken from his supremely negative dealings with law enforcement. In a touching moment, one that I think is the only time we’ve seen all of the main male characters in a room together alone, Prosper—who effectively stands in as the family patriarch of sorts now—has to remind Micah of who he is and not to allow other people to make you who into somebody you’re not. Again, heavy.
Queen Sugar is a program that doesn’t shy away from addressing real-life issues. It’s unlike any other show on television, and that’s just a fact. The care with which the writers and directors treat their characters is impressive. They’re allowed their humanity and allowed to evolve and breathe.
I care about Darla and Aunt Vi and Micah and their ability to move forward from the depths of hell they’ve witnessed. The show is allowing itself to be used to start conversations and create awareness, and hopefully, drive folks to seek help where they need it. On Twitter last night, Ava DuVernay debuted her #QueenSugarTalks with a bunch of influencers, advocates and writers to talk about their experiences and create a platform to continue the conversations started by the show, especially around addiction and trauma, since the central characters on the show are dealing with so much.
I want Darla to win. I really do and I hope that she is able to get back to where she was trying to go. Same for Aunt Vi, who seems to have it all but her demons keep trying to catch up with her. She too realizes she has some work to do and wants to get there. Luckily, both of them (and Micah too) have a support system in place to keep them from falling too far. Others aren’t as lucky, so hopefully, the work being done by the creators and writers to provide alternate paths to talk about those issues (social media, panels, etc.) will help those who might not know where to go or have anybody to go to.
Lawson let me know that she hopes people take a look at this episode and really think about not just about the fact that people are addicted, but the why of their addiction.
“Addiction, trauma, it can be so insidious in the way it manifests in people’s actions and behaviors,” she said. “I love that this can prompt the conversation and let other people not be ashamed and speak their truths about what they’re going through in life.”
What I do know is that I appreciate Queen Sugar for tackling these issues that are often seen as taboo in the black community. In their own way, the show’s creators are doing the work to help highlight both our issues with mental health and how to address them.
Queen Sugar, you are appreciated.