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Friday, September 6, 2013

Ask A Slave And Get A Real Answer

Azie Dungey has created a comedy series called "Ask A Slave," which is based on questions people asked her when she portrayed a slave at the Mount Vernon historic site. (Screenshot from Ask A Slave)

Azie Dungey has created a comedy series called “Ask A Slave,” which is based on questions people asked her when she portrayed a slave at the Mount Vernon historic site. (Screenshot from Ask A Slave)

We’d like to introduce you to Lizzie Mae: she’s a slave of George and Martha Washington.

Lizzie is the creation of actress Azie Dungey, and featured in her new web series, Ask A Slave. The series is based on questions that tourists asked Dungey when she portrayed a slave on Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia that is now a museum and tourist attraction.

And Dungey was asked some crazy questions, such as: How did you you get your job as a slave? Did you find it in a newspaper?

And: Why don’t you just go to Massachusetts and go to college?

Dungey says even though the questions are absurd, that isn’t the problem.

“To me this isn’t really about the people and the questions,” Dungey told Here & Now. “We elevate history to an extreme extent and every Fourth of July everybody is proud of what it means to be an American. But we don’t take the time to understand what, and especially not to understand the story of what was considered a less valuable history — which is African-American history.”





There's someone we'd like to introduce you to. Her name is Lizzie Mae.


AZIE DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Good day to you, lords and ladies. I'm Lizzie Mae, personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington. And I'm here to answer all your questions about the Washington's home and plantation. So don't be shy now.

CHAKRABARTI: Lizzie is the creation of actress Azie Dungey. Dungey worked as a character interpreter at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and museum in Virginia. She played the role of Caroline Branham, a real woman who was Martha Washington's slave maid. And as you can imagine, tourists asked her a lot of questions.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished Founding Father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?

DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why, yes. It said, Wanted: One housemaid. No pay.

CHAKRABARTI: Those questions inspired Dungey to create the fictional Lizzie Mae, star of the popular new comedy Web series "Ask A Slave." Azie Dungey joins us from the studios of NPR West in California. Azie, welcome. Let me first start by asking you, you've played a lot of famous African-American women on stage, but at Mount Vernon, you had to inhabit an unscripted slave character. What was that like?

DUNGEY: Yes. It was really kind of difficult, honestly. It was some of the hardest work I've ever done because I had to know the history. I took about two months of studying. And then it never really stopped. But it was challenging because it's just a very fine line between entertaining and also educating. And also this idea that - I mean, I didn't want to entertain about slavery. And, you know, that's something that was challenging when I was writing the script as well. I didn't want to be there to be somebody's minstrel show.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, tell me a little bit more about that because that must have been a struggle because I imagine there are a lot of people out there who would say there shouldn't be any comedy brought to this horrific part of American history that had to do with slavery.

DUNGEY: Yes, I can totally understand that point of view. I think for me, humor is a way to break down people's defenses, and I think that if you do it right and you catch people on a moment when their defenses are down, through the humor, you can squeeze in some kernel of meaning.

CHAKRABARTI: The questions, though - I mean, I've read that they are basically word for word actual questions that you got as a historical re-enactor at Mount Vernon, the actual questions.

DUNGEY: They are the actual questions.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now why didn't you just go to Massachusetts and go to school?

DUNGEY: How do you expect me to get up to Massachusetts? What, I'm going to sprout wings and fly?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, you could ride a horse.

DUNGEY: Oh, so now I'm a horse thief and a runaway. Well, if I'm looking for new and exciting ways to get myself hung, I will remember to call on you.

I kept a running log. My friends and family encouraged me to do so because I would come home and I would tell them all of these crazy, you know, things that happened to me at work and they would just crack up or they would be angry or, you know, or a combination of both. And they just said these are just gems. You need to write them down. So I started doing that.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we've got another piece of tape here, and it's an interaction - or based on an interaction that you had with a tourist who asked you a question about Martha Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What if she needs something?

DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Well, if she's ill, I sleep on the floor by her bed and I'm there to take care of her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But even if she's not sick, she might need something.

DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Tell you what, if you're so worried about the Queen Mother's sleeping arrangements, why don't you come on down to the plantation and I'll give you the honor of working my 18-hour shift. After which, you can stay up all night and stare at the old bat while she sleeps. How did that sound to you?


DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Mm-hmm. Now she then changed her tune. Let me ask you something, what do you do when you need something in the middle of the night?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I get up and get it.

DUNGEY: (as Lizzie Mae) Well, all right then.

CHAKRABARTI: Azie, I want to admit something. I don't know whether to laugh because my impulse is to laugh or just shake my head, you know what I mean, because...

DUNGEY: Yeah. That was hard for me too.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And so when you're in that moment and you're confronted with these questions, I mean, is that how you actually answered it at Mount Vernon?

DUNGEY: That was pretty much word for word, except for when I got really cheeky. I would never say, you know, why don't you do my job for me? And, you know, you can stare at her all night. I didn't say that. But I, you know, this was kind of a long interaction in front of a group of people, and this woman just wouldn't let up about it. I even had another question in between and then said does anybody have any more questions? And she came back with: I'm still worried about Mrs. Washington. And I did tell her, I said, well, what do you do when you need something in the middle of the night? And she said: I get up and I get it. And I said, well then, I'm sure Mrs. Washington will be just fine.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm thinking that, on the one hand, it's pretty easy and maybe we're justified in laughing at the ignorance in some of these questions that you get at Mount Vernon. But on the other hand, in defense of those tourists, at least they're coming there, right, for historical experience.

DUNGEY: Exactly. I don't, you know, to me, this isn't really about the people and the questions. It's about a system that allows these questions to still - you know, we elevate history to an extreme extent. And every Fourth of July, everybody is so proud of what it means to be an American, but at the same time, you know, people don't take the time to understand that and especially not to understand the stories of what's considered a lesser valuable history, which is African-American history.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. What was it like for you when, you know, you're at Mount Vernon, you're playing the part of a slave to the Washingtons in 18th century America, but really you're living in 21st century America? And at the end of the day, when you're done, you have to leave that setting and go back into, you know, the rest of the world that we all live in. Was it jarring to go back and forth like that?

DUNGEY: It was really strange. I started to see things in my life in a, I don't know, in like a time-warpy way, where I would see the history behind everyday events, you know? But things happen that made me angry. There was an article. I think it was on Psychology Today. It was a scientist who had done a study on race and attractiveness. The findings were that black women were the most unattractive women of all the races. And he believed that it was - that was justifiable on an evolutionary level.

That happened about a week after I had read some of Thomas Jefferson's writings, where he said that black men are attracted to white women for the same reasons that orangutans are attracted to black women. But this scientist - he actually made an article. He actually made a study trying to basically prove the same point. And I just couldn't believe it. I was just - it was infuriating.

CHAKRABARTI: Let me ask you the flipside. What do you love about playing the part of Lizzie Mae?

DUNGEY: Well, I love playing Lizzie Mae because I get to reimagine the scenarios in a way where I feel a little more empowered. And I also feel like I am, in a weird way, empowering those people that didn't have a voice at that time. But most of all, my proudest moment was hearing from a woman named ZSun-nee Matema who is actually the seventh generation great granddaughter of the woman I played at Mount Vernon. Caroline Branham was the real woman's name. And she told me that she loved "Ask A Slave," and she was so proud of me and she felt like Caroline would have loved it too.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Well, Azie Dungey is the creator of Lizzie Mae and also the creative force behind the new Web series, "Ask A Slave." Azie, it's been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

DUNGEY: Thank you, Meghna. I had a great time.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jeremy, we've got a link to the "Ask A Slave" Web series at our website We'd love to know what people think about it again. That's at


From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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