Arts & Culture

Satirical ‘Ask a Slave’ tackles modern knowledge of slavery

Azie Mira Dungey uses experience as historical interpreter to create reflective web series

By
Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2014

Azie Mira Dungey previously worked as a historical interpreter in an interactive exhibit at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate before launching a web series tackling modern understandings of slavery.

A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Azie Mira Dungey spent several years working as a historical interpreter at President George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. She spent her days as part of an interactive exhibit, portraying a slave whom visitors could ask questions about life as a slave in the Revolutionary War era. She has since moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote and starred in a web series entitled “Ask A Slave,” a satire based on her real-life experiences fielding questions from tourists at Mount Vernon. This afternoon, she will partake in a panel hosted by the Center for Public Humanities and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, where she will screen “Ask A Slave” and discuss her work at Mount Vernon. Dungey recently spoke with The Herald about historical memory and the use of humor to confront disturbing material.

 

Herald: How did you get into educational theater?

Dungey: I was doing professional theater in (Washington) but needed a day job. My first day job, actually, was at the Smithsonian, at the gift shop. I heard about a traveling children’s play and auditioned. I literally went on my lunch break. Around the time that ended, the director of that show said, “At the American History Museum, they are looking for someone to do the civil rights movement show.” It was at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. It just sort of happened in front of you. It was interactive, so it was different. Then, someone I knew knew the head of the department at Mount Vernon who was looking for someone to play a slave in a scripted Christmas special on the weekends. After this job ended, I became a (historical) interpreter for Mount Vernon on George Washington’s estate.

 

How is it different acting in the civil rights movement versus acting as a slave? 

We, as a country, have a better handle on the narrative of the civil rights. I don’t know if a majority of people know beyond Martin Luther King. But we embrace that story. We are certainly proud of those great Americans — black and white — who helped change segregation. When it comes to slavery, we don’t have a clear sense of that narrative at all. Most people only understand it surrounding the Civil War. It’s also intensely emotional and not in a way of pride like in the civil rights movement. The emotion is shame. We get avoidance. We get denial. We get racism. You know, people don’t want to deal with it. When they go to Mount Vernon, they go for nostalgia. As a performer playing the part of a slave, it was almost as if I was directly in opposition to that nostalgia. So it was a lot more fraught and a lot more difficult. It wasn’t as empowering a history as the civil rights movement.

 

In my class, we were recently talking about “12 Years a Slave” and the psychological aspect of playing a slave. We were also talking about how some people argue that it is harder for white actors to play the role of a master than it is for black actors to play the role of a slave. So I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your experience. Did this take a toll on you?

That’s the first question people ask me. How did it feel? I spent about two months learning about this role. Even when I was there, I never stopped reading about the history. I had to read George Washington’s history as an individual, I had to understand how households were run (and) I had to understand Virginia history. I would say that this was the hardest part emotionally, reading the books for hours and hearing about people having horrific things done to them. I remember pickling stuck out to me for weeks. People were pickled. I just couldn’t get over that. Playing a woman at that time was another layer over that. I didn’t do the kind of stuff they do at Williamsburg or even comparable to a movie like “12 Years a Slave.” I never had to pretend anything was happening at the moment. We didn’t really act and were just available as an education resource for visitors. I never had to pretend I was getting scolded. There was never an auction scene like they do at Williamsburg. I was able to keep my emotions at bay because I was there to bring the information on a first-person level. My emotions were expended in these difficult interactions with visitors rather than portraying a slave. My emotions were more like, “Why are people asking me these ridiculous questions?” I never had to feel the emotion of having my child sold from me. I didn’t have to dig deep for those acting moments.

 

How did (Ask A Slave) get started?

When I was working at Mount Vernon, I would go home and talk about my interactions with people. They would laugh most of the time, and some of the time they would shake their heads or be angry. They would say, “You have these crazy stories, you should do something with them.” So I started writing them down. Then I thought that I could make it into a web series. Then it all started to fall into place. I told the idea to Jordan Black, who used to write for (Saturday Night Live). He kept saying, “Just make it about the questions. Don’t try to go in and out of being Azie and this 18th-century person. Just make it very simple.” At first, I was very resistant to that. If it was done poorly, it could be offensive. My writing had to be so on point, or it could go terribly wrong. As I developed it and kept showing it to him, it ended up working best for (the web series) medium.

 

There was one episode where one of your “viewers” says that you shouldn’t be joking about slavery. So, what is your opinion on those who say jokes about slavery are not appropriate?

Well, I think some people don’t really connect with satire, and there is nothing you can do about that. But when you have a subject that brings up so many deep-seated emotions, false assumptions and divisive feelings, one of the best tools that you have is humor, incredibly steeped in honesty. If honesty and facts are on your side and you use humor to break down the person’s defensiveness, I think it is more easily received. So when I do this show, the joke is never on (my character) Lizzie Mae. It’s never on slavery as an institution or slavery as an experience. The joke is on our inability as modern Americans to really face the history and to be honest with ourselves and each other. Beyond that, the joke is on foolishness and ignorance — it’s a little bit of shaming. But with humor, you can shame somebody into taking a second look at your point of view.

Humor is also a step toward empathy in a lot of situations. If we share a joke, we share a sense of humanity. If I give you a punchline, you have to acknowledge that you understand my point of view in order to get the joke. Once you do that, you can open yourself up to taking a second look at my point of view. When people look at George Washington, they empathize with him and with that history and with his heroism. The problem is that — especially if they are white — they associate themselves with him and not necessarily his slaves. But with this show, he’s the background — it’s about Lizzie Mae.

We can use humor to effectively talk about things that are very serious. I don’t think that because people laugh it means that it is somehow not as important. I think comedy can actually do serious subjects a lot of justice.

 

Going back to your experience at Mount Vernon, how are you able to decipher between people who ask you questions because they want to learn and those who just appear to be ignorant about slavery?

I found that most people wanted to learn. Most people were there to pick up some knowledge. As far as a person who is belligerent versus a person who just happens to have something wrong, it’s a matter of personality types. They make themselves pretty easily known. Like the man who asked me to see where I was branded — I didn’t continue a conversation with him because he wasn’t taking me seriously. Also, there was a man that said, “Slavery is an industrious life where you get room and board for your work.” I tried to engage the person. The man was trying to lead me to express facts that would back that up in front of his school group. The children were my main concern, so I tried to lead him down a different way of thinking. It depends on how they express their point of view. If they ask you a question, you have more control over the situation. If they make a statement that’s wrong, you have to be really quick and come back with something that will keep the conversation going.

 

Is there going to be another season of “Ask a Slave”?

There’s actually not another season. I feel like I have made the statement I needed to make. People would say, “Lizzie Mae can give her opinion on movies that come out.” No, she can’t. Then it becomes this strange minstrel show. I have to maintain the integrity. If I draw it out too long, then that becomes threatened. But you never know, maybe in the future (I will) have more stories.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.