Just 12 miles north of Chicago, Evanston, Illinois is perhaps best known as the location of prestigious Northwestern University and the possible birthplace of the ice cream sundae. Evanston is also one of the few North Shore cities that historically has had a significant African-American population. Though not part of the Underground Railroad, many slaves escaping to Canada reportedly traversed the area along the way. Evanston is also the site of one of the earliest African-American Boy Scout troops in the United States.

Tina Lifford plays Aunt Violet on OWN’s ‘Queen Sugar.’ (Courtesy photo)

Tina Lifford, who plays Violet (Aunt Violet) Bordelon on OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” spent the greater part of her childhood in Evanston. She describes it as playing a great role in shaping her personality telling the AFRO, “I definitely was grounded in Midwestern values. There’s something about how I grew up in Evanston, in a small black community that reminds me just a little of “Queen Sugar” in terms of the family connection but also the connection to community. There is something about that love vibration that just is similar to what I grew up in.”

The family moved west to California when Tina was about 13 years of age. Lifford, who people may also recognize as recurring character CIA Director Lowry on Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” credits her mother’s foresight with the move. She explains, “The older I get, the more I realize that my mom was a trailblazer in very, very subtle but important ways. She knew that it was important to our expansion as people to get us out of the little town of Evanston. I have to applaud her for that, because she was willing to make that move with or without my father for what she was convinced was going to be a better life for her kids.”

Lifford, who is also a life coach, possibly grasps the import of environment more readily than most. “What I am certain of,” Lifford says, “is if the environment is not stimulating a sense of hope and passion, then we are going to wind up not fully expanding into the ‘more’ that we all are. Of hope, of envisioning greater possibilities, of thinking in terms of being curious, and then expanding into that curiosity.”

Aunt Violet has quickly become one of the most beloved characters on Oprah Winfrey’s eponymous network. Wise and fun yet down to earth, Violet has emerged as the bedrock of the Bordelon clan. Aunt Violet is the quintessential modern-day matriarch. Asked what she believed was the overall impact of the character, she responded, “Ava Duvernay-through the hard work and heavy lifting of Oprah Winfrey that positioned Oprah to have OWN, and then Ava to envision this incredible world that focuses on black people, you have for the first time this character that all of these women watching “Queen Sugar” can see themselves in a way that they don’t normally see themselves on television. That is huge.”

Much has also been made of Violet’s romantic relationship with the fiercely devoted, yet much younger Hollywood Desonier, played by Omar J. Dorsey. Lifford says, “Violet is wise, but is also interested in being alive and vivacious and sexy and joyful. And the fact that it is an image that people, not just girls, not just women- can breathe in, it just extends for people their own sense of what’s possible for their lives.”

She shares that her initial meeting with Dorsey, whom she describes as “the sweetest man,” got off to something of an inauspicious start. Dorsey’s optimism about finding the perfect Violet was flagging a bit on the Saturday afternoon that Lifford walked in to do what is known in the industry as a “chemistry read.” It is basically what it sounds like- an audition to see how well the actors vibe with each other. Lifford recalls “I was standing in this room waiting for the audition process to begin. I don’t know Omar, I had never seen him, and all of a sudden I looked up and saw this dark chocolate, big, old scrumptious-looking man lumbering my way and I literally said to myself, ‘Oh, this will be easy.’ Omar actually came in with a little bit of an attitude, because I was now actress number whatever that he had to get out of his bed and come and act against only to not find the Violet they were looking for. He was giving me just a little bit of shade.”

Ultimately Lifford bowled Dorsey over. She explains: “By the time it was over, he was rubbing my feet, I was rubbing his head, and we were pecking each other like Violet and Hollywood.” As Dorsey later revealed to her, he called Ava immediately and said, ‘I think we found her.’

Duvernay in turn ran to get a look at the footage. Her reaction? “That was hot.”