Actress Azie Mira Dungey's brilliantly biting web series, Ask a Slave, brings to life the uneducated assumptions and racist questions Dungey faced during her time portraying George Washington's housemaid, Caroline Branham, at Mount Vernon. Each episode features Dungey as Lizzie Mae, Branham's fictional counterpart, responding to actual questions posed by tourists visiting the historic home.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Dungey was obsessed with Britcoms at an early age. “They love to make you laugh because you are uncomfortable,” she says. After graduating NYU, Dungey moved back to D.C. to work in theater and ended up performing in an interactive show at the Smithsonian about the civil rights movement. “I discovered museum theater was a nice way to merge my love for history and learning with my acting,” Dungey says.
She was especially attracted to the re-enactment job at Mount Vernon because there were no other black people portrayed there. Her work at the historical house–cum–tourist attraction, however, sent her to the front lines of American ignorance.
Luckily Dungey, a talented comedian with a killer deadpan, understood she could catch more racists with humor than diatribes. In Ask a Slave, her raised eyebrows at such questions as “How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?” are as hilarious as her replies.
Dungey moved to L.A. after a year and a half at Mount Vernon to pursue film and television and study at the Groundlings. It's there that she met Jordan Black (The Black Version), who directed the Ask a Slave series.
Dungey was apprehensive about how the series would be received. “My main concern was that it would come off as minstrelsy, buffoonery. We have a terrible legacy of the portrayal of slaves and I did not want Lizzie Mae to be at all associated with that.”
Quite the contrary. The series, which premiered this Labor Day, has received much praise and more than half a million views. But doing justice to the memory of the lives she is representing means more than kudos from Gawker, Slate or even NPR.
“My proudest moment was hearing from a descendent of Caroline that the show was very well done and that she would be proud of me,” Dungey says. “That brought tears to my eyes.”
The Tangled Web We Watch is our column on what's worth watching online. Watch Ask a Slave at AskASlave.com. Read Stephanie Carrie's full interview with Azie Mira Dungey and Jordan Black on her blog, tangledwebwewatch.com. BIG disclaimer: Carrie is a friend of Dungee and played a small role in a later episode of the series.