Funny girl Azie Dungey is using her unique educational and professional background to address the nation as George Washington’s fictional house servant, "Lizzie Mae," in the new web series, “Ask a Slave.”
Dungey’s online effort, which launched its first video September 1, has already gained widespread attention and interest. TheBlaze recently interviewed the performer to learn more about the intriguing project.
Azie Dungey in her role as Lizzie Mae (Photo Credit: Azie Dungey)
With the show as her platform, the actress has been able to poke fun at and answer some of the most outrageous questions she received while performing in character at Mount Vernon from hundreds of curious tourists wanting to hear what it was like as a black woman living in the 1700s.
While maintaining an overtly satirical tone, “Ask a Slave” encourages viewers, through her character, to consider just how much progress Americans have made since the nation’s founding — and, of course, to laugh.
Dungey’s Background and Early Career
Dungey's experience makes her ideal for the satirical role. Her website reveals that after graduating from New York University, the comedian-actress returned to her hometown in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) area, where she took advantage of the region’s rich theatrical and historical opportunities, picking up several acting jobs at local museums.
In her autobiography, she writes: “In the few years I lived in the DMV, I must have played every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Caroline Branham -- Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid. I liked to call myself the time-traveling black girl.”
Dungey told TheBlaze that her dream of becoming an actress began at age 12 after her mother took her to see "Ragtime" in Washington, D.C. She subsequently attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and majored in drama with a minor in anthropology.
Dungey completed a program through South Dakota State University, which required her to live on an Indian reservation for an extended period of time. No stranger to immersion, Dungey took her interest in the history and cultures of different people groups and found acting gigs for which she could use that knowledge.
After college Dungey headed back to the "DMV," where she got her unconventional start as an actress, landing gigs like the one at Mount Vernon, as well as the Smithsonian. But before she could assume an historical role and lead tours, Dungey had to spend two months researching in the Mount Vernon library. Mary Thompson, Mount Vernon’s resident historian, was always present to answer any questions.
Tom Plott, Dungey’s boss at Mount Vernon and the man she calls her “biggest mentor,” taught her how to be “a little provoking” when prodded by malicious or “just plain ignorant people.” Dungey explained that actors like herself must create characters who can be charming, while at the same time “respectable and smarter than [museum visitors] expected.”
What Do Dungey’s Mentors and Former Co-Workers Say About the Show?
“Mary Thompson loves the series; she has been very supportive from the beginning,” Dungey said.
Tom Plott is also a fan, of whom Dungey “bounced ideas off” before moving to L.A.
“They understand the ridiculous questions," she added.
The show, still only a few weeks old, has already afforded Dungey an unexpected opportunity: the chance to connect with the most important fan she may ever have.
The “Ask a Slave” star was recently introduced to an actual descendant of another woman she portrayed at Mount Vernon — the seventh-generation granddaughter of Caroline Branham. Dungey was happy to report that she “loves the series” and “thinks it’s well done.” The surreal experience brought Dungey to tears.
How Does Dungey Really Feel About the Founding Fathers?
The answer may surprise you...
“I have this affinity and great respect for George Washington,” Dungey said, adding, “I think what the founding fathers did was remarkable for their time. I really admire it.”
The problem Dungey sees with history has more to do with how today's Americans deal with and interpret facts than the people and events of the past.
"People think it’s a South-versus-North thing — no! A lot of [colonial abolitionists] were either apathetic, or trying to send black people back to Africa — something irrational or uninformed," Dungey explained, adding that this romanticized version of a country divided between racist southerners and benevolent northerners shapes politics, public opinion and social norms for the worse.
In her mind, the fact that America’s historical narrative doesn’t include stories of people such as Lizzie Mae and Billy Lee (George Washington’s man servant and his closest companion) has proven politically damaging. She claims that black American history, taught as a separate history, devalues those individuals in an indirect way.
“These Obama years have been so divisive, and I think we all need to remember that no one owns this history,” Dungey explained, “It’s all of our history” — a tale that is often erroneous and “sometimes malicious.”
“We just need to be honest and at least understand [the Founding Fathers] on the level that they understood themselves.”
Why Did No One Think of This Before?
For one, historical satire is not typically used by comedians, save for a video series such as "Drunk History."
“The two fields [history and comedy] don’t naturally merge too often,” she said.
And there’s the obvious reason...
“Just the idea that you can have slavery as a touch-point and comedy is really scary.”
The key to pulling off a show like “Ask a Slave,” Dungey explains, is what she acknowledges as the element of grace. This has much to do with the material Dungey chooses to cover and how she chooses to present that information.
“There’s such a balance — the joke can’t be on slavery," she told us.
All jokes aside, Dungey claims that she is able to see herself “in every part of this story.”
“If I had been born white in Virginia, I might’ve had slaves and thought it was all right. I can have understanding from every side,” Dungey said. “Our responsibility is not to feel guilty or ashamed of the past, but we should learn from it. Our duty is to educate ourselves.”
Still, Dungey shared her firm belief that laughter is the best medicine.
What Does the Future Look Like for Dungey and the Show?
“I did not go into this with an end goal,” Dungey admitted.
Her initial aspiration was to simply make the show — and specifically “to make it not terrible.” Though there has been talk of supplementing future episodes with more history, she was unable to disclose any details.
Dungey’s profile on the “Ask a Slave” website adds some additional insight: “...I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that 'Ask A Slave' is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.”
Dungey did share that the show has given her the confidence and assurance needed to move forward with her acting career and pursue future roles. “I don’t want to stay here for very long so that Lizzie Mae becomes ‘what I do,’” she said. “I want to be an actor that lives in the contemporary world.”
So how often can fans expect to hear from Lizzie Mae online? Quite frequently, Dungey says...at least for now.
“The videos will be released every Sunday until we run out.”
Here's another one of Dungey’s more recent videos:
You can read more about Dungey and Lizzie Mae on the performer's website.