Bianca Lawson radiates on screen. Becoming Darla on the stunning OWN series Queen Sugar has been an exceptional gift for the actress. A veteran in the television and film industry, Lawson has been delivering stellar performances in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the ever-popular Pretty Little Liars. On Queen Sugar – where she plays a young recovering addict, Darla who is trying to rebuild a life with her son Blue (Ethan Hutchison) and his father Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) — Lawson has had to expose herself in ways that she hasn’t ever had to previously.
Infectiously effervescent, Lawson’s personality is very different from the quiet and anxious Darla. We spoke earlier this week, just a few days before the premiere of Darla’s much-anticipated reunion with her estranged parents. “There is something about this particular character, she's completely unlike anything else I've ever played — you have a really visceral experience with her," Lawson explained to me. “It's analytical for me. I think when I started acting it's something about feeling the security of hiding behind a character — and for her, I've had to actually reveal more of my true self. With Darla, there's something very interesting about her where the things that she's gone through even though I haven't gone through the exact same situations, I've had to process things about myself or confront things about myself or at least expose certain aspects of myself to do her justice. This has probably been the most personal character for me, and definitely, I'd say the most complex and intricately layered. I feel like she's made me a better actress. I feel like she's made me a more empathetic human.”
Accustomed to creating her own back-stories for her characters, Lawson was not aware of the complicated layers that shaped Darla’s past when she first read for the role. Embodying this young woman has brought forth an arresting fierceness not often seen on television – especially in a role that has historically been portrayed stereotypically. “Ava [DuVernay] and I had a long call before I officially came on,” Lawson recalled. “She told me a little bit about her thoughts about the character, and why she wanted to write this character. She really wanted to tell the story of a young Black woman getting sober in a way that hadn't been done before — in a way that was more real and true to life. There’s a real loneliness in that journey.”
When we were first introduced to Darla in Season One of Queen Sugar, she was isolated, left alone in her trailer home and her life — forced to face the demons of her past. Darla’s path to sobriety, as well as her reconnection with the Bordelons, has required a great deal of Lawson. "I sometimes think in life you feel you've got to have really thick skin," she reflected. “She’s just transformed me, and she's helped me process through things. It's been a really, really powerful experience for me playing her.”
For Lawson, Darla’s transformation has also been about seeing how other people react to her. When people don’t measure up to some high standard that we demand of them, our first reaction is to cast them aside. “We really put a lot of stock in appearance," Lawson explained. “The conditions of the person's life at that moment — we have no idea what their journey has been up until that point. We judge people so much, not knowing where they came from. I found out in the script that [Darla] had been a medaled swimmer and she was a debutante; she had a completely different life experience from what we've seen of her here. She was working in a parking lot, and she was treated so badly. People just treated her like an invisible person. In her past life, she was a whole different person.”
In tonight’s episode of Queen Sugar which has been titled “Heritage,” audiences will finally get the full scope of who Darla is with the arrival of her mother, Darlene (Michael Michelle) and father Quincy (Roger Guenveur Smith) whom she has been estranged from for six years. Though snippets about Darla’s upbringing seem to mirror Charley’s (Dawn-Lyen Gardner} – there is still much to unravel about this profoundly nuanced character. Still, a family reunion fraught with emotions and anxiety won’t be the sole focus of “Heritage.” Darla also discloses a secret that she’s been keeping from Ralph Angel — one that will shift the foundation of the newly engaged couple’s already fragile relationship.
When Lawson first read the script for "Heritage" she was left speechless. “First Ava calls me and she was like, ‘I want to just talk to you,’” Lawson revealed. “We talked through it a lot, and she gave me so much to chew on. It was interesting because I think it took a minute to process. I think I started to grieve a little bit. It's such a turn in what it means for what she's been carrying with her this whole time that we didn't know, in addition to all the other things. It even gives more of a context about her relationship with her parents. What does this mean for Ralph Angel? What does this mean for Blue? What does this mean for everything she's been working so hard for up until this point? How do you even come around this? How does she even get to the point of having the courage to do this? What is this all going to mean? You fall in love with these characters --they mean many things to you, and they're living inside of you. Adding an even larger layer onto what Darla has been having to hold and move through, in the midst of all these devastating things, she still has to get up. She's like, 'I'm going to show up today, and I'm just going to keep showing up.' But how do you do that?”
Queen Sugar airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on OWN.Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami