Dawn-Lyen Gardner is a part of a new emergence in the film and TV industry. Her essence represents a new generation of enlightened and grounded Hollywood stars.
She says, “We’re at the beginning of the evolution of the entertainment industry. As difficult as it may be moving through some of these important wounds, it’s absolutely necessary for true healing and transformative shifts.” She is conscious of her impact and role in the entertainment industry and candidly speaks of advocacy, radical love and personal healing.
Eloquent and deeply connected to her center, Gardner commands the set as Charley Bordelon West, one of the lead protagonists in Ava DuVernay’s award-winning series, Queen Sugar.
The American television drama is creating transformative conversations one episode at a time. She thoughtfully explains, “There has been a sort of beautiful space that’s emerged. It has allowed this merging expression of values, beliefs and politics that might have actually gotten people blacklisted in past years.”
Gardner’s own personal journey occurred perhaps even before she was conscious of it happening. Both her parents modeled activism at home and were extremely involved in their community. “I didn’t realize this, but I was taking in and absorbing a lot of that from pretty early on,” she recalled. Starting when he was 20 years old, Gardner’s father ran the Community Justice Center, and her mother wrote grants in addition to other community work. “They were just in that work. But they never really talked to us about it; they just lived it,” she said.
At 14 years old, a family trip to India changed Gardner’s life. She remembers specifics of that time vividly. “From that point forward, I was different in the world and asking a different question of myself. I remember it was like all of these dots got connected for me,” she said. Gardner remembers seeing homeless children her age and thinking, “You’re my age. You are begging. I’m not. I know that I don’t know how to understand your situation, because I’m not in it––and because I’m not, I must help you. That’s just a part of being human.”
Gardner’s firsthand experience of this injustice left a lifelong impression. “I remember reaching for my fanny pack and wanting to give money,” she recounted. “I was told that you actually can’t because you’ll be part of the system of beggars. This system where that money won’t even go to him, it’d go to some sort of pimp-type person who makes beggars beg. Then they never see the money. It was before Slumdog Millionaire, before we understood how that system works. Everything shifted for me. It was something about the idea of responding. It just shifted my world and just woke me up.”
ALIGNMENT WITH THE CHARACTER
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I think so much of my spirit was aligned already to much of what her [Charley’s] journey was and has been. In some ways, it has been a split of learning from her and also teaching her some of my own lessons––my own spirit and my own sense of purpose. I think she is admirable, incredible and challenging in her own way and is important in terms of flipping societal expectations. Playing her has allowed me to merge these parts of my identity into a different wholeness.
OVERCOMING UNCERTAINTY WITH BELIEF
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I think the thing that I keep going back to is belief. I would question, “Why am I here? How do I walk in a way that reflects that in every part of my life?” It had to do with imagining a set and a project where I, as an actor, could speak to the conversations and things that I wanted to be a part of. To create the possibility of that, with no evidence around me that it may happen or that it was possible.
That was one of the biggest lessons that I learned because four years later, there I was auditioning for this show, and then I got it. All of that came from the willingness to believe that it was possible.
HEALING AFTER THE GRIEF OF MISCARRIAGE
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: That was a game changer for me. And it likely would have been even if it wasn’t [during] the pandemic…and even if what was happening socially in terms of the protests and the murder of George Floyd hadn’t happened. It would have likely [still] been a game changer because that’s what that kind of loss can be for people.
But that happened for me, in the midst of all of that [was happening]. It happened for me when connection [wasn’t available]… and how I would have gone to community wasn’t available in the same way. And so I found myself in a profound experience of grief, and it was so far beyond the pregnancy loss. It was the grief of the pandemic, which is not just people who were dying around the world, it was the loss of income, plans and community connection––all of those things are real grief.
Then it was the social and cultural grief of the protests. And then this really invisible grief of the pregnancy loss. Which is something that there isn’t space to sort of acknowledge in our society. And I really thought that “Wow, we really are othered as women, because where are the stories that are told about this experience and where is our cultural space to talk about it?”
I feel like it taught me a lot about grief…about how important human experience is and how absolutely undervalued it is. Because what it did wasn’t just allow me to process what is and was happening, but it also humanized me differently. It opened me undeniably to the truth. My body was talking to me and I was listening in a way that very few things except for grief force you to do––they force you to stop your go, go, go––they force you to become present to whatever truth you really need to be listening or attending to.
And, so for me that’s what happened. Again, would that all have been the lesson without those other factors––potentially, but it was absolutely undeniably the lesson. And it continued to be until, I mean I feel like I’m still in this lesson of––what does it mean to absolutely honor myself and my experience? To stand for my own life, to do radical rest, radical self care, to say no to being mistreated or to say no to parts of my life that aren’t okay for me.
So [with] all of those lessons––it felt like it was like the Universe, saying, “This is what you need to learn right now––this is the chapter that you need to be in right now.” And I don’t ever wish that experience on anyone, because it is devastating in a way that is impossible to fully articulate. There is a part of my spirit that recognizes that without that experience, I don’t know if I would have learned these lessons or been as open to them, and they have been invaluable in my life. So there’s a part of me that also feels gratitude in it, not necessarily for it, but in it.
THE AVA EFFECT IS SHATTERING HOLLYWOOD’S GENDER GAP
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I think that Ava has been part of an important, very critical time in our industry, one that I’ve never seen before. And I think it’s undeniable that the show, especially with the female directorial team, has played a giant role in moving forward a conversation and a reality in our industry around gender equity. And around who’s at the table, how the table is made, what it’s made of and around the questions that I think are emerging now. I don’t know how to describe it … it is undeniable. Something I could have never seen [coming]. I honestly felt it was impossible, that it would be impossible for the industry to ever change.
I could imagine world peace before I could imagine our industry changing. That was the argument in my head: “There’s no way. There’s no way it’s ever going to happen.” And so I think that it’s very clear that it has been an undeniably powerful time and enablement. Ava is a big part of that.