(The Root) — The Harriet Tubman role was the last straw. After recurring guest spots spanning slavery to the civil rights movement, actress Azie Dungey was over the days of old.
"The future just seemed like more history," said Dungey. When a friend forming a historical actors' troupe asked Dungey, who'd just finished playing a housemaid and slave at George Washington's Mount Vernon in suburban Virginia, to fill the role of Harriet Tubman, it was as if the universe were conspiring against her.
"When I got home," recalled Dungey, "I was like, 'OK, that's it.' I felt like if I stayed in D.C. that's what I would end up doing." "That" is performing the past instead of living in the present.
So Dungey packed up and moved across the country to Los Angeles. But instead of leaving her regional-theater chops behind in a file marked "Never Again," Dungey used her unique résumé to create the Web series Ask a Slave.
In the series Dungey plays Lizzie Mae, a housemaid on George Washington's estate. Despite living in 1795, Lizzie hosts her own television show in which people on the street get to ask her anything they want about her life. Questions like, "Why are you a slave?" and "Where do your kids go to school?" are based on actual encounters Dungey had while working part-time as a living-history character at Mount Vernon.
Since its debut just last week, Ask a Slave has racked up a total of nearly 800,000 views for all three episodes released thus far. Recently Dungey talked with The Root about the "completely positive" reaction to the show, season 2 and life after Lizzie.
The Root: Was there an aha moment when you thought: "You know what? Web series!"?
Azie Dungey: I had these stories that I had been telling my friends and family, and they were like, "Write them down. This is hilarious and/or terrible." I thought about a one-woman show for a while, but then I couldn't really have the questioners. I got the idea about a year into working at Mount Vernon in 2010, and during that same time I was thinking about moving to L.A.
TR: How did your production team come together?
AD: I just moved about nine months ago. I was chatting with a girl at a party and said, "You won't believe my last job." She told me to contact Jordan Black, a Groundlings alum, who has an all-black improv show called The Black Version. So I Facebook-messaged him out of the blue and he wrote back, "Yeah, I'm really interested." Everybody was on board right away. I think the concept is very interesting to people, and Jordan is definitely a pro at doing racially charged comedy with social commentary.
TR: What kind of response have you gotten from viewers?
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.
TR: How did you prepare to play Lizzie Mae?
AD: I spent two months researching George Washington, slavery and the individual lives of the slaves at Mount Vernon. You have to be dedicated to learning that history. Learning that stuff was really emotionally challenging.
TR: In the Web series most of the questions come from white people. Did African Americans visit Mount Vernon often?
AD: Mount Vernon's visiting population was extremely white. Ninety percent of the people I interacted with were white Americans. When black Americans came, it was a very different experience. It was like they were with me. One guy was like, "Hey, after you're done here I'll be out back by the barn. We're going to help get you out of here."
TR: Were the African-American visitors generally more knowledgeable about slavery?
AD: I got a few clueless questions from African Americans, too. Once I said something about missing this person who had run away, and this older black man was like, "Wait a minute, someone ran away?! But I thought the slaves here were treated well?" I told him, "It doesn't matter how kind someone is to you. Nobody wants to be slave." And I was actually directly quoting a runaway, Oney Judge, who was interviewed in an abolitionist newspaper article as saying, "I really don't have any complaints about how Mr. and Mrs. Washington treated me. I just didn't want to be a slave."
TR: What can fans of the show expect in the future?
AD: We're already starting to work on season 2 now. I want to make sure that whatever I do that I maintain the quality of the material and production. When I feel like I've said enough, then I'll stop. It's been incredible to see how many teachers write to tell me they're using it in the classroom — from middle school to college. I just wanted to do a comedy about my personal story, but I'm glad it's had such a far-reaching effect about our history and our foibles in confronting it. I hope it continues to be a resource in that way.
TR: And what's next for Azie the actress?
AD: I'm working with a friend on a sketch show right now that's also being written for the Web. It's sort of like Ab Fab meets Key & Peele. You'll see her in episode 4. She plays Emma the runaway. In real life her name's Amani and my name's Azie, so we're calling the sketch show Amazie. For the most part it's just fun, and we get to just be like everyday people.