Sol Man & Queen Sugar Star, Dondré Whitfield Talks Acting, Purpose & Family
Dondré Whitfield is one of those incredibly principled Sol Men who lives a life of purpose. The Brooklyn, New York native has blessed us with his on-screen talent for more than three decades, bringing passion and intention to each role he plays—from Robert Foreman on The Cosby Show to Terrence Frye on the daytime soap opera, All My Children. He received three Daytime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Younger Actor in a Drama Series for his performance on All My Children.
In 2016, Dondré was cast as Remy Newell in the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)'s beautifully written and directed drama series, Queen Sugar, produced by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. Queen Sugar, now in it's third season, won the top award for Television Show of the Year (Drama) during the 2018 American Black Film Festival Honors in February and we cannot wait to see how the remainder of the season—and the lives of the Bordelon family—continue to unfold and evolve.
Sure, he’s a talented actor with great screen presence but many don’t know that Dondré is one of the deepest brothers in these "Woke Black Man" streets. Seriously, there are levels to his intellect.
Dondré is an incredible storyteller, healer, restoration coach, man of faith and the consummate family man. In 2015, Dondré co-founded The Manhood Tour, an endeavor to awaken the consciousness of men nationwide focusing on the topics of personal growth and development, creating and maintaining healthy relationships, and igniting personal passion. There is a great deal of "soul traffic" and true purpose around this work.
We recently sat down to discuss acting, purpose, family and manhood. NOTE: Dondré provides a working definition of malehood vs. manhood. Did we mention that this brotha is DEEP? Read on.
Get Your Sol: Dondré, I appreciate your willingness to share your life and your perspective on faith, fitness and family with Get Your Sol followers. Before you began acting, you played semi-pro baseball. Can you share the backstory on your early life as an athlete?
Dondré: I’ve actually played three sports on the semi pro level — baseball, basketball and football. Honestly, this speaks to the absence of my father. My father was in and out of jail my entire life and the recognition I was seeking, the love I was seeking, the validation I was seeking came in the form of athletics. I didn't have any examples of a man being scholarly. Being scholarly was not presented to me as a cool thing so I didn't chase that. Instead, I chased athletics because that's what my neighborhood in Brooklyn looked at and said, “Wow!” Being an athlete provided the validation I would have otherwise gotten from my father.
Get Your Sol: You could have chased girls, you could have chased the streets but you chose athletics, which was arguably the smartest way to go. I'm curious to know why you chose this path.
Dondré: Truthfully speaking, I did chase girls because I was misled and I understood at a very young age that if you chased athletics and you were good, the girls would chase you.
Get Your Sol: What did you learn from this chase?
Dondré: I got to this moment at a pretty devastating time in my life. I cheated on a girlfriend that I really did love. Contrary to popular opinion, when a male cheats — and I’ll give the working definition of a male in a second — women think the male doesn't hurt. He will let on that he isn’t hurt because in his mind he thinks being hurt shows weakness. That really is not the case. It's a very hurtful thing for a male not to have the kind of direction that helps him navigate life better. God created all of us, males in particular, to want to be the leader and the hero of our house. When a male doesn't have the skill set to be the hero, you're looking at a very wounded individual and the way it gets expressed is through anger.
Get Your Sol: So, they are not really expressing anger, they're expressing hurt?
Dondré: Right. When you see somebody on ten and they’re going off, yelling, screaming or breaking things, you're not experiencing anger, you're experiencing the fullness of someone's profound hurt. Our wiring is such that when we don't have proper manhood training, proper downloads of manhood, we give into our warrior spirit in order to protect ourselves from being vulnerable. What you usually see is a male being aggressive, expressing demonstrative behavior such that you think this dude is a monster. He isn’t. He is an extremely wounded person who doesn't know how to express himself in a vulnerable state and be okay with that. That's something that has to be modeled for you in order for you to mirror it.
Get Your Sol: At what age did you learn that it's okay to be vulnerable? When did it click for you?
Dondré: It clicked when I was in my 20s after far too many experiences of burning down the village and being in a space where I was literally like a weeping child. In my early 30s, after being married for a couple of years I said to myself, “I don't want to feel like this. I’m a husband now and I’m going to be a father soon. I can't live like this. I don't want to feel like I don't have the answers. I want to be the kind of man that my family and my community can lean on.”
That space of vulnerability was the launching pad for me to get to my manhood. For the first time in my life, I pursued studying the word and getting around a group of men that didn't want anything from me other than for me to have a relationship with God. That broke me down in the best possible way. It was the greatest example of what a man's true love should be. This is what I call the manhood matriculation. This was literally me coming out of all of the deficient spaces of maleness that I was living in. I would ask myself, “Where are you right now? Have you leveled up?”
Get Your Sol: There are so many men—young and old—who need to understand this. You're talking about elevating your level of manhood but what about the men who don't have these conversations with themselves and with other men?
What about the men who discuss sports and women but don't go deeper and question where they are on the spectrum of manhood? A lot of men shut down and hide without asking themselves the difficult questions or surrounding themselves with other men who can help them be vulnerable and honest about where they are and where they need to go.
Dondré: That is absolutely the landscape of our community's experience of what may seemingly look like men. Unfortunately, what we're dealing with is our grown males. That's different than being a man. We're robbing them of the opportunity to matriculate into manhood. My two purposes in life are to build males into men and to restore women who have suffered at the hands of males who don't know how to be men. The first thing I do with my sisters is teach them how to properly identify whether or not they're in relationship with a grown male. A grown male is a male who wears the uniform of a man. They may have some of the accoutrements of success—a nice watch, a nice car, all of those things, but they’re stuck in the mental capacity of a boy. When women are able to properly identify being in a relationship with a gown male vs. a grown man, they understand how to better pick a partner. We need to start looking at grown males with empathy because they got robbed of the messaging they needed to level up. Look at President Donald Trump. He is a grown male because he looks to be served. Conversely, President Barack Obama looks to be of service. I want to stress that these are not distinctions of color, but of character.
Get Your Sol: How can women love and support adult males appropriately? What’s the best way to give them space to grow without watching them burn down the entire village?
Dondré: We have to stop being angry with them because the world is angry with them. We have to look at them as wounded warriors who can't get out of their own way. There's a lot of shame in feeling that you are deficient. What a male is running from is that he will be uncovered, that someone will find out that he is not all he feels he should be. No male ever wants to be in that position. What he wants is to be in this space where he figures it all out without being shamed. You see, every male I’ve ever met in my life needed to be the hero. Every woman that I’ve ever experienced in an intimate way—from my grandmother to my mother to my wife — I have heard them say, “You don't listen to me.” Every man I’ve ever experienced in an intimate way says they didn't know how to express what they were saying but what they were really saying is, “I need to be your hero. I need to be able to save the day. I need to be seen as the one who has the answers, the one who has the direction.” What happens to someone who doesn't have that kind of wisdom because he never received the training? He becomes an individual who is supremely angry because he knows he's missing something but he doesn't know how to fortify his own deficiency.
Get Your Sol: And as a result, he hides his fear and vulnerability.
Dondré: Yes, and perhaps he drinks, he smokes, he's sexist... He does everything NOT to feel how devastating it is to be himself.
Get Your Sol: This sounds like bonafide purpose work. I would imagine that this is a tremendous calling for you.
Dondré: I tell people all the time I’m an actor and that's my passion but it's not my purpose. Huge difference.
Get Your Sol: How did you get started in television and film? Why did you pursue acting?
Dondré: One day this teacher in elementary school asked me, “Did you know that people get paid to act?” She brought in a list of salaries for actors and I was surprised. I thought they were acting because they were having fun. When I realized it was a viable way to make money I began to think acting could be my way out. Plus, I had a passion for acting. At home we had this little TV that would be considered like a security monitor today [because of it's size]. I would go up to the TV every day, touch the screen and say, “One day I’m going to be in there.” I literally did that every day. A lot of people say, “I would like to do this but I don't think I’m ever going to make it.” They are actually sending out a very strong signal for it not to happen. Conversely, successful people call out to their passion. They call out to their destiny and that actually attracts their destiny to them. It serves as a beacon that lets your life know where you are. It comes to find you the louder you speak it and the more you actually believe it.
I didn't realize that's what I was doing at the time because I didn't have that kind of wisdom, but I was attracting that part of my destiny. I kept telling myself, "One day I’m going to be on television. I'm going to be a success." I believed it. What’s so crazy is that I saw it like it had already happened.
Get Your Sol: Let’s talk about your role on Queen Sugar. How do you bring such quiet strength and wisdom in a compassionate, yet take-no-shit way to your character, Remy Newell? Where does this come from?
Dondré: Remy is my way of paying homage to my grandmother, may she rest in peace, and my mother. I watched my grandmother suffer at the hands of males and my father leaving me to the will of the streets and not properly directing me was a source of great pain. My father and I were disconnected for about 20 years and what helped me get over that was a conversation I had with my daughter, Parker. She began to ask me about my father. We had what I felt was a really long, uncomfortable conversation. What I finally realized is that I needed to have more empathy for my father because maybe my father couldn't father me because he was never fathered. I used to tell myself that I don't need my father now because I am a father, but I do need my father. Bringing this back to my role on Queen Sugar, Remy is the kind of man that I would have wanted for my grandmother or my mother.
Get Your Sol: What's a typical day like filming Queen Sugar and how do you get your workouts in and stay committed to your mental, physical and spiritual center?
Dondré: Our days can be very long but we always have our weekends so there's never a good enough reason to not do the work. I stay dedicated because there is a male [my son, Dre] who looks to me to be his model and I have to keep being that example every single day. I have to be a model for physical, emotional and mental fitness so I don't lack motivation in that area. Yeah, that part gets to be pretty easy when I’m faced with the prospect of letting someone down who needs me. I understand the need because I was a child who went without an example. I know how important having one is.
Get Your Sol: What's your workout routine like?
Dondré: Boxing became a great love of mine and it's a way to get in the kind of cardio I need so I’ll hit the speed bag, I'll jump rope from time to time, I even get to spar.
Get Your Sol: Do you work out with any members of the cast and crew?
Dondré: Yes. It's interesting because most of us are a little segregated in the sense that if I’m working then you know, Kofi Siriboe, who plays Ralph Angel, might be off. If he's working, then I’m off so it's not until the weekend where we may have time together and if I’ve got more than two days off, I’m flying home. From time to time we get together and we might play ball but for the most part our schedules segregate us.
Get Your Sol: During weekends when you happen to be in New Orleans, do you have people you spend time with? What do you like to do?
Dondré: I’m a huge golfer. In the first two years of being in New Orleans, I would spend time in the gym and if I wasn't in the gym, I would be with my side chick, which is golf. That's literally how I refer to golf. My wife is a golfer too so she'd ask me, “What are you doing?” I’d reply, “I’m over here with my side chick.” I tell people all the time that I didn’t come down here to get divorced so I don't live in the [French] Quarter. I live in a very small town called Metairie, which is a suburb of New Orleans. A lot of the brothers on our show are single so they'll hit me up and send me a text saying, "Big bro, we’re going out and we know you're not coming but we just want you to know." I’ll reply, “Yeah man, have a good time and don't make me have to bail nobody out.” [Laugh] It’s a very rare sighting for anyone to see me out and about like that.
Get Your Sol: When you're not with your side chick what else do you enjoy doing?
Dondré: My wife and I recently bought a new house [in California] and we have this great bay window. One day, I was sitting and reading a book and my son, Dré came in and asked, “Dad, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m reading my book.” He went to grab his book and sat in the bay window with me. I had my feet propped up and they were pointing in one direction. My son is sitting on the opposite end of the bay window he's got his feet propped up pointing in my direction. I looked up and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. It was such a beautiful moment.
Get Your Sol: What about nutrition? What kinds of food do you enjoy?
Dondré: I was vegetarian for two years and then I decided to become vegan last November. Being vegan is perfect in California but as I was on my way to New Orleans to film Queen Sugar, I thought, I'm going to die! I had to find the vegan community here in New Orleans and it's actually big.
Get Your Sol: Has becoming vegan helped you in different areas of your life?
Dondré: It has given me a lot of clarity. And I hadn't played basketball in five years and the reason I stopped playing ball was because I started feeling a little bit of pain in my knee. I thought it was because I’m a man of a certain age now and I didn’t want to get hurt so I decided my playing days were over. I became vegan and without even really noticing it, I stopped feeling that pain in my knee.
One day, we were shooting on the set of a gym and we were about to have lunch. I told myself I was going to eat real quick and then I planned to shoot around. A few guys were playing four-on-four on the other half court and they lost one player. One guy asked, “Yo’ Dré, you want to play?” Without even thinking about my knee, I decided to play. We played three straight games and even though I got them beat [in age] by 28 years, I was killing them! It didn't dawn on me until after we finished playing and I’m changing back into wardrobe because we had to finish shooting, that this was the first time I had played in five years and I didn't feel any pain the next day. No soreness, nothing at all. I’m certain that was a result of eating the way I’m eating. After all, food is medicine.
Get Your Sol: Finally, you and your beautiful wife, director and actress, Salli Richardson Whitfield, have been together for how many years? Didn't you recently renew your vows?
Dondré: Yes, we did. We have been partners for 20 years and married for 15 of those.
Get Your Sol: Tell me about the love you share and how you've been able to sustain it.
Dondré: I wanted the kind of marriage that people said was not possible when we saw it on The Cosby Show. You know, Black professionals who truly love each other, raise great children, build a legacy and don't allow the power they got from their professional lives to be an excuse to overindulge themselves outside their marriage—and that requires work every single day.
I used to tell my wife as often as I could, “Hey, we’ve got to be mindful to be as thoughtful about our marriage as we are about our work." I made love a friendly competition between us to see who can love more, who can love better. Every day is about how can I make my wife’s experience better. How can I make it more profoundly rich? How can I improve her day? A few months ago, she had her first day of directing on a new show and I sent her the following text:
Wife, I hope you're having a magical first day. Stay humble and may God's blessing cover your life, including your career. I’m so proud of you, my friend and my wife. From your loving husband.
That was just a quick shout to say, I honor you, I love you, I invest in you. Even though we're apart right now, I want her to know that out of sight is never out of mind or spirit.