From Teen Soaps to Gritty Dramas: the Next Breakthrough Actress?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because high school can be hell — especially 20 years of it.
By Keith Murphy
Bianca Lawson wanted more. That’s what the 38-year-old actress was thinking two years ago after decades devoted to teen roles. That’s not to say that Lawson hadn’t built an impressive résumé as a memorable presence in both film and television. From 2012 to 2015, for instance, the Los Angeles native played a powerful emissary to a lycanthrope pack in Teen Wolf, a strong-willed lesbian on the long-running mystery Pretty Little Liars and an out-of-control bad girl struggling to find her place in a Chicago gang in Rogue.
It was the familiar tale of an actor getting typecast and yearning for more — though, in Lawson’s case, it’d be tough to find folks with the patience to listen to a successful talent whose uncle is legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and whose stepsister is none other than Beyoncé complain about feeling trapped.
“I was in the mode of ‘OK, I’m doing these jobs and it’s great that I’m working, but I want to challenge myself,’” Lawson admits.
Then, last year, Lawson had an artistic breakthrough after being tapped to play Darla, a recovering drug addict and redemptive mother in Ava DuVernay’s dark and gorgeously shot cable drama Queen Sugar. Darla cycles back into the lives of her estranged baby daddy and ex-con-with-a-heart Ralph Angel Bordelon (played with simmering rage by star-in-the-making Kofi Siriboe) and their highly sensitive son, Blue. She’s a messy work in progress.
Amid the drama of the Bordelon siblings, thrown together in the face of tragedy to manage their deceased father’s sugarcane farm, Darla becomes the unlikely backbone for Ralph Angel. While Darla resists the pull of her self-destructive past, and tries to win back the fractured trust of friends and extended family, the Louisiana-based series, which has been picked up for a third season, takes on police abuse, class and the legacy of slavery.
Lawson fell down the acting rabbit hole at a time when most kids her age were learning to tie their shoelaces.
Since debuting last September on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, Queen Sugar has become the network’s most acclaimed and consistent ratings winner. For Lawson, the show is the most fulfilling gig of her career, and folks are noticing.
“When it comes to Darla, and Bianca’s embodiment of her, there are almost too many moments to name where Lawson did deeply moving work,” says Anthony Sparks, Queen Sugar’s lead writer and executive producer. “Her almost wordless scene in the parking lot with Ralph Angel in our very first episode is [one]. It’s great to watch her work.”
For author and blogger Demetria Lucas D’Oyley, who does a popular video recap of TV shows, Lawson has been a revelation. “She showed up and she owned that role,” D’Oyley says. “[Lawson] is playing a character who is just trying to do best by herself and her family. I think that’s why people are rooting for her.”
Lawson lets out a goofy giggle that seems to say How crazy is this shit? “I can’t believe my luck just to be attached to someone as inspiring as Ava,” she gushes of Queen Sugar’s creator (and the director of 2014’s Oscar-winning Selma).
But complex, well-defined roles have not always been easy to come by for Lawson. There was a time she seemed content to play the perpetual high schooler in angst-ridden series like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars — and she had the genetic gifts that made her appear eternally young. She, like other actresses, wrestled with a double standard when it came to getting aged out of projects.
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My Darla journey began in december 2015! It's now almost a year later and her journey in season 1 is concluding tonight. I have never loved or been affected by a character more. She has been the most beautiful gift and I will be forever changed. @directher said to me that Darla's strength comes from her struggles right before I shot my last scene of the season. I like to think that's true for all of us… that our darkest hours prepare us for our dawns. May you all have many, many dawns❤️ #QueenSugar
Then there’s the mammoth hurdle of being a woman of color in Hollywood. The fact that Lawson plays a drug addict, the type of worn-out part burdened by decades of tired racial stereotypes, doesn’t appear much like progress on the surface. And early in the series, Darla seemed to embody old tropes of the sad, struggling dope fiend. But to the credit of Queen Sugar’s writers and Lawson’s nuanced performance, the character takes on surprising layers that transform Darla into much more than a pretty face handed a second chance.
Lawson fell down the acting rabbit hole at a time when most kids her age were learning to tie their shoelaces. Going to the movies with her father, actor Richard Lawson, was treated like a sacred ritual by the curious, bookish girl. “I was a little bit of a loner in school,” she recalls. “I was the kid with the library books, always reading. I think that’s what attracted me to acting. You can literally be anything you want to be.”
At 9, the future University of Southern California grad filmed her first Barbie commercial. A chance meeting with a talent manager in a New York store in 1993 led to getting cast in Saved by the Bell: The New Class. There were also multiple appearances on the WB sitcoms Sister, Sister and The Steve Harvey Show.
Soon, Lawson became known as the lone Black character on mostly white mainstream series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek. Since the cutesy 2001 interracial drama Save the Last Dance, the roles started to blur for the seemingly ageless wonder.
“Her résumé up until now didn’t have the material to let her light shine,” D’Oyley says. “I feel like she fought for the Queen Sugar role because she wanted to stand out. And she is doing an amazing job.”
But while she’s happy to have finally left high school behind, Lawson is still not satisfied. With Queen Sugar renewed for another season, she wants to continue tapping into the deep reservoir that is Darla. “It’s important that my character still moves forward and says, ‘I am not my past. I am more than this.’” How’s that for art imitating life?
- Keith Murphy, Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root. He’s a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1 and A&E Biography.Contact Keith Murphy