Actress Azie Mira Dungey is the creator of “Ask a Slave,” a simultaneously hilarious and horrifying web series based on her experience playing a slave as a historical re-enactor. Dungey worked at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, as the only black character represented at the estate; at the time, there were three other re-enactors who worked with her, all as her white superiors. The videos are released every Sunday; so far, Dungey has released two videos in the series and will release four more.
Though the “Ask a Slave” videos are full of laughs, they also expose the ignorance and disrespect Dungey encountered on a day-to-day basis during the year and a half she worked at Mount Vernon. Dungey talked to Metro about the creative process behind “Ask a Slave.”
In your videos, we see you snap back at some of the tourists who ask you dumb questions. Did you really do that when you were on the job?
To a point, yes. I didn’t ever speak in a disrespectful way, but I definitely had a back and forth with people. The best example is in episode one of the series, when the woman asked what Mrs. Washington was going to do when she needed something in the middle of the night, and that is a word-for-word interaction, except when I lay into her about “the Queen Mother’s sleeping arrangements” and “you can work my 18-hour shifts,” but that was what I was thinking.
I definitely did challenge people and it was part of my job to educate them. And the best way to do that was to get people to come to the conclusion themselves. I would try to provoke them into recognizing the answer themselves, but not in a cruel way. Just sort of, let’s take this line of thought to where it’s really going. Some of the interactions are word-for-word except to the point where I get kind of cheeky.
Was it emotionally jarring for you to play a slave during the day?
Even before I started the job, the hardest part was actually the two months of research that I did prior, when I was in the Mount Vernon library or in the office reading these books about these people and the time period. And that was horrifying.
It was hard to put on the costume and realize how people saw you. I wasn’t myself anymore. As soon as you saw me in this costume, all kinds of racial issues came up. There were times when people said things to me and told me to get them stuff.
Really? Like what?
I carried around a basket and the basket became this thing. People would ask [in Southern accent and low voice], “Do you have biscuits for me in that basket?” It was this icon of submissiveness and oppression. It was really strange. And I would always give it back to them. It was definitely emotionally difficult, but at the same time I felt empowered because I got to tell that story.
If you come to Mount Vernon, it’s all about George Washington – and I have a lot of respect for George Washington because of how he was able to change his mind about slavery, which was so ingrained in him and in his society and time. I think that’s pretty awesome. But at the same time he’s glorified in this way and people come there and they associate themselves with him and they don’t see the common people – there were six white people who lived on Mount Vernon and 316 black people. He even recognized that he stood on their shoulders. And I felt very happy to bring that story to life.
Do you feel like it says something about the theater industry that you had to support yourself by playing a slave?
I think a lot of that had to do more with where I lived. I lived in D.C. and it’s all about history. To live there was my choice. D.C. has the Smithsonian and they have theaters, and I did shows on the Civil Rights Movement for kids and teachers, and I played people who were actually very powerful black leaders.
Everybody is typecast, but the range of types from which you can cast people is much wider for a young white girl, and they have a lot more types of characters to choose from. I think we have a long way to go in terms of seeing black people and other people of color in the variety in which they actually do come.
Did it take a toll on you to constantly be in this world where you were a slave?
Sometimes it was very awkward because I had such close personal relationships with my colleagues, but they were playing my masters or other superiors, and I was the only black person. I was really close friends with the girl who played Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter, who literally would be my next owner when Mrs. Washington died. And sometimes we’d be by ourselves sitting and laughing and people would come over and say, “Why are you sitting together?” and I’d explain, “Well, I have to be chaperoned.” And there were times when she’d make the situation clear – she’d talk and I couldn’t talk – with things that would be appropriate to the situation. And that was hurtful and just jarring.
What’s the one event that really sticks with you from your time working at Mount Vernon?
I’d do a scripted Christmas presentation where I would stand in a room and people would walk into the room in groups and I’d give my monologue about how it was to work as a house servant at Christmas. This little boy came in and we chatted for a while and then I went into the speech and in the middle of it he gasped and grabbed his father’s arm and said, “Is she a slave?” because he hadn’t figured it out through our conversation. His face just dropped and after the speech he said, “Why don’t you just start a revolt?” And I said, “Wouldn’t they punish me very badly for that?” and then he took my arm and rubbed it and said, “Don’t you worry. Just you wait. There’s a man coming named Abraham Lincoln and he’ll set you free.” He was very gentle and sweet.
Find out more about Dungey's "Ask a Slave" web series: http://www.askaslave.com
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark