‘Ask a Slave’: Come Down to the Plantation

In her new Web series, actress Azie Dungey plays a plantation housemaid and takes questions about life.

Actress Azie Dungey in costume (AskASlave.com)

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 AD: By and large it’s just been completely positive. People really love it. I’m also getting emails from people all over the world. Just as we’re talking, somebody just sent me an email and the subject line is “I’m obsessed with this show.” There’s a very small, and I mean very small, percentage of people that seem to put the series in the same camp as “The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape,” but it’s not even clear to me that they’ve watched it.

TR: What was your reaction to the since-deleted “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape”?

AD: I think I had the same reaction as most people. This really just doesn’t work. I think for me it was kind of sad to see the story of Harriet Tubman reduced to that because there’s so much in that story.

TR: Do you think the subject matter is too difficult to watch for some people?

AD: Slavery and comedy being in the same show is very difficult for some people, and they can’t get past it enough to even watch it, which I understand. I had to remind myself that the joke in Ask a Slave is not on slaves or slavery. It’s about America then but more importantly about America now.

TR: So there’s an underlying message behind the series that goes beyond just laughs?

AD: It points to the fact that we have for so long devalued certain segments of our history. Where we glorify this mythical aspect of history, like the founding fathers, as the epitome of what it means to be an America but don’t want to face the reality of that time.

TR: Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a black actress in portraying Lizzie Mae?

AD: I’ve thought a lot about the way we do or don’t tell stories about black women in general. Honestly, I did think about the movie The Help and how that kind of opened up a discussion about what black women didn’t reveal when they were in subservient positions. I felt like people kind of understand what that means because of the book and movie and thought I was adding to it in a different way.

TR: You’ve played several historical characters. Was it getting daunting?

AD: I’d been at Mount Vernon for a while. I’d done a children’s show about the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian. I even played a runaway in the Lincoln movie that shot in Richmond. Then I got a call to be the first black female pilot, Bessie Coleman, from the Air and Space Museum. I was just like, “What is happening?” I had done all these things, and I was like, I don’t know if I want to continue down this road.

TR: Can you describe one of your toughest days on the job as a “character interpreter” at Mount Vernon?

AD: I should say that most of my interactions were quite pleasant and not with crazy people. A lot of my time was with students who never asked me dumb questions. There were only a few times that I felt so offended I either had to get out of the situation very quickly or I didn’t know what to say.

Once, a man grabbed my arm and asked to see where I was branded, which he thought was funny. And I, of course, got my arm away from him and I said, “Um, no.” Then his wife said, “Well, you’ve got it good because we’re from South Carolina and they brand slaves down there.” Everyone was laughing, and I was like, “Well, OK. I’m just going to walk away now.” These people were not here to learn.