Playing the role of a slave woman at one of the country’s top-tourist destinations, actress and comedian Azie Mira Dungey learned first hand how ignorant many Americans are about the institution of slavery. For two years, Dungey worked part-time at George Washington‘s Mount Vernon mansion in Mount Vernon, Va., often portraying one of the slave women who worked inside of Washington’s home. The role required her to read countless books on the plantation’s history over a two month period before she started the job.
Once she stepped into character, Dungey realized that she was more than just a recent New York University graduate milling around in a short-term gig until Hollywood called; instead, Dungey believed that she was something of a griot of Black history and took her role very seriously.
And her job wasn’t easy. Often, Dungey has had to answer challenging questions from mostly White tourists — all while staying in character.
During an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Dungey recalled the time someone asked, “What’s your favorite part of the plantation?” (Her answer: “My bed”) Then there was the guy who asked, “How did you get to be the house maid for such a distinguished Founding Father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?”
(Her answer: “Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why yes. It said, ‘Wanted: One housemaid. No pay, preferably mulatto, saucy with breeding hips. Must work 18 hours a day. No holidays. But, you get to wear a pretty dress. And, if you’re lucky, you might to get carry some famous White man’s bastard child.’ So, you better believe I read that, ran over and said, ‘sign me up.’” ).
But not all of the obtuse questions came from White people.
After speaking to an older Black man about a runaway slave who attempted to flee Washington’s plantation, the man seemed shocked at the slave’s attempt at freedom. “He was like, ‘Wait a minute, why did he want to run away?’” Dungey recalls the man asking. “‘I thought that George Washington was a good slave owner.’”
“I just looked at him, like, Are you serious?… You can be the nicest in the world but people don’t want to be your slave. And the man was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’”
As aforementioned, though, as comical as some of the questions were, Dungey never broke character. Dungey was committed to ensuring that she conveyed the reality in which her character lived. In her role, Dungey realized that she may be one of the few people from whom they can get some sense of how Blacks lived during a very repressive period in American history.
“History is our narrative,” she said. “It shapes what we think of ourselves and our society. How it is controlled, and whose stories get told (or not told) has a strong effect on culture, and even on public policy. Black history is not a separate history or a less important one. Misconceptions about Black history and the modern Black experience is really dividing us politically and socially. If we don’t understand racism and where it comes from, how can we end it? How can we weed it out? We have to be critical of these things to make true progress.”
She left that job late last year and has since moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, but the two-year experience motivated her to turn the hilarity of the tourists’ ignorance into the YouTube web series “Ask A Slave.” As “Lizzie Mae,” Dungey sits in front of a TV and answers viewers’ questions about slavery and George Washington.
All of the questions are ones tourists actually asked while she was working at Mount Vernon.
Watch Episode 1 of “Ask A Slave” here:
Since going live with two videos Sept. 1, the first episode has garnered more than 301,100 views, while the second episode has more than 119,000 views. It’s not a bad start at all, especially considering that Dungey raised the funds for production herself.
Watch Episode 2 of “Ask A Slave” here:
Back in April, she raised $3,000 through the crowdsourcing site GoFundMe to shoot six episodes, which will be published on YouTube each Sunday. The series was directed by Jordan Black, creator of the improvised comedy web series “The Black Version.” The first two episodes have gotten positive reviews from Jezebel, MadameNoire, as well as other sites, with Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman calling it “the best web series since “Drunk History.”
So far, Dungey seems to have fine tuned the art of taking on the very delicate subject of slavery without making a mockery of it. Russell Simmons felt the fury of Black Twitter over his “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape,” in which the named abolitionist blackmails her slave master with threats of making their sexual relationship public if he did not give her slaves to lead through the Underground Railroad. It was an epic fail and Simmons was forced to apologize after taking down the video. When asked how she avoids such disrespectful portrayals of Black history, Dungey says she makes it clear what the audience should (and should not) be laughing at.
“Slavery can’t be the joke…. So, it can’t be the person that’s the joke and it can’t be the situation that their in that’s the joke,” she said. So with each production, Dungey looks to give an intelligent, dignified voice to Black people who could say very little during their lifetime. As Dungey sees it, the Lizzie Maes of the world have as much to say about American history as any of the Founding Fathers.
“One thing I noticed at Mount Vernon was how visitors felt such strong and immediate affinity to George Washington and his story. And rightly so, he deserves it. However, in this series, I hope people begin to feel that same passion for the Lizzie Maes of history as well. Her history belongs to all of us as well.”
article by Terrell Jermaine Starr via newsone.com