In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
When D.C. native Azie Dungey returned to the region after college, she found work as an interpreter for local historic sites. As an African-American telling the story of a slave at Mount Vernon, she was asked questions both absurd and sublime. She’s turned the experience into a satirical web series, “Ask a Slave,” that earns raves for its insights and humor alike. Dungey joins Kojo in studio to talk about her career thus far and what comes next.
- Azie Dungey actress; creator, web series "Ask a Slave"
Ask A Slave Episode 1: Meet Lizzie Mae
MR. KOJO NNAMDIImagine your job is to portray a slave at a historic site. You spend your day in period clothing in a time warp of sorts answering questions like, what's your favorite part of the plantation and2why don’t' you just run away on the underground railroad? When your shift finally ends you time travel back to what some are calling the post-racial modern day United States, where you read a blog post on a mainstream site with scientific cred, claiming to have hard proof that black women are the least attractive of all women, while the first African American president is in residence a few miles away at the White House, leaving you to wonder, what's going on?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat's where Azie Dungey found herself a few years ago, prompting her to tell the tale, which she's doing in a web series titled "As a Slave." (sic) Joining us to tell us about that experience is Azie Dungey herself. She's an actress, creator and producer of the web series "Ask a Slave." Azie Dungey joins us in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. AZIE DUNGEYThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou grew up largely in this area. When did you know you wanted to become a performer in the first place?
DUNGEYWell, I always enjoyed storytelling. I think that's kind of what draws me to theater and acting and writing. But it was definitely seeing the show "Ragtime" at the Kennedy Center with my mom -- the musical. My mom's not a big fan of musicals but she took me because I sort of begged her. And halfway through I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. And she just was so, you know, touched by the story. And I think that pretty much solidified to me just how powerful this medium really was.
NNAMDISo when you returned to the Washington area after acting school in New York, where did you find work?
DUNGEYWell, my first job was actually at the Ripley Center at the Smithsonian doing a children's show about the Civil Rights Movement. It's a touring show that they do every year called "How Old is a Hero?" And then of course I had, like, a day job working at a shop, you know, that kind of thing. And then eventually I landed the job at Mount Vernon.
NNAMDIWell, it's my understanding though that in the few years that you lived here you, according to you, have played every black woman of note that ever lived.
DUNGEYThat's a bit of an exaggeration. But I think, you know, being in the D.C. area, we're a little bit obsessed with American history. And of course being African American, I sort of ended up in this niche of, you know, playing these roles -- these important black women. And it's also something that I like history, so it wasn't like I was -- I hated it or anything but it was definitely not something I expected.
NNAMDIWell, this past spring the Washington Post ran a story about the difficulty that many historic sites have in finding African American performers to take on roles in which they are slaves at worst or subservient at best. Were you reluctant at all to take the Mount Vernon job?
DUNGEYWell, what attracted me at first was that it was a scripted program that I was first brought on to do. And in that setting I felt very comfortable. But I certainly had to really think about how playing a slave would affect me emotionally. Mount Vernon is not exactly like a place like Williamsburg where you're actually, you know, interacting with your masters in a way where you have to act anything out. It's more providing more information, you know, from a first-person point of view.
DUNGEYBut it did give me pause. I didn't -- you know, a friend of mine was like, you're going to have to have really thick skin. And so, you know, I did think about that certainly.
NNAMDIThat certainly turned out to be true. We're talking with Azie Dungey. She is an actress who is creator and producer of the web series, "Ask a Slave." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever worked as an interpreter or actor at a historic site? Tell us what your experience was like, 800-433-8850. Does the idea of mixing serious issues like race and comedy put you on edge? Tell us why or why not. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow., all of which brings us to the web series you created after moving to L.A. Who is Lizzy May and what's the premise behind "Ask a Slave?"
DUNGEYWhen I first decided I wanted to put this into a show, I wanted to focus actually on me, Azie dealing with, like you were talking about earlier, going in this time warp between then and now. But it didn't really -- something got lost in translation with all the different layers. So I decided to go in a direction that was more about the questions themselves and kind of took me out of it. And in doing that, I had to create a new character who is sort of an amalgamation between me and the things that I was thinking at the time that these things happened to me and the 18th century slave woman.
DUNGEYSo she's based on Caroline Branham who's a woman that I portrayed at Mount Vernon who was George Washington's housemaid. And also obviously a satirical use of my voice within, you know, the context. So she's a little bit of both.
NNAMDILet's take a listen as Lizzy May fields a few questions while sewing, starting with one from Sarah from Portland, Oregon.
SARAHWhat do you think of Harriett Tubman?
DUNGEYI don't know any Tubmans. The only Harriett I know is down at the mill. She's all right as long as you keep her from the whiskey. She gets so liquored up she could throw herself on the ground and miss.
SARAHHi, Lizzy May. I'm a huge fan. I was just wondering, what is it that you're working on.
DUNGEYOh, this? It's a shirt. I've got to sew nine shirts a week and that's on my downtime.
DUNGEYWell, I don't use my feet.
SARAHOh, my god. That is just so -- like I can't imagine how anyone with a conscience would actually, like, make people be enslaved.
DUNGEYYou must pay your seamstress good.
SARAHOh, I don't have a seamstress.
DUNGEYOh, you make your own clothes?
SARAHNo. I just buy it at the store.
DUNGEYYou mean to tell me you don't know the person who makes your clothing?
DUNGEYThen how do you know she ain't in the same position I am?
NNAMDIYes, that's just a clip from episode 4, "New Leaf, Same Page." We're talking with the creator of that series, Azie Dungey. She's an actress and creator and producer of the web series "Ask a Slave." Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Now, about that clip, the one thing that stands out is that you take the opportunity to turn the tables on a question and reframe it through a contemporary lens. Was that something you consciously tried to do during your time on the job or is it something that you developed later on?
DUNGEYNo, actually that's pretty much word for word, an interaction I had at Mount Vernon. And it -- at the time I didn't think about it but it just came to me that she was so -- she just was like such a bleeding heart about, you know, the fact that I was a slave. But at the same time I just thought, well I wonder if she even realizes that there are still slaves. And so, you know, I just came up with that and said it and I think she was very surprised.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect the thing that she and others may have found surprising is that they're expecting an actress. And what they get is somebody who's both an actress and a humorist. Where do these zingers come from?
DUNGEYI don't know. I think that's just the way I -- I mean that's just my personality I guess. But I also wanted to create a character, even at Mount Vernon, that could, you know, could educate, but at the same time -- well, through humor, and pointed humor. And I did -- I do that on a much larger scale with "Ask a Slave."
NNAMDIWere there ever -- did you ever get questions that are so, well, out there, that they just left you dumbstruck, not able to respond?
DUNGEYYes. That was a...
NNAMDILike this one I just asked.
DUNGEYYeah. Some of them I -- most of them are in the show or will be in season two. But, yeah, I think one question about birth control just left me very confused. She was very adamant that she had read that slaves used alligator dung for birth control. And I was just like, I don't even want to know what you're talking about.
NNAMDII don't see any one-liners coming out of that.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please, because I'd like to go to the phone, as we have Nora in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nora, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORAHi. Hi, Kojo. Hi, Azie. How are you?
DUNGEYGood. How are you?
NORAI'm good. I wanted to ask you about season two and if we can expect any new characters, or what's going to happen there? And I can take my answer off the air.
NNAMDISo you just want like a free preview of season two?
NNAMDIJust because she's sitting here? Okay.
NORAAlso, if she has any advice for people who are getting into writing for Web series.
NNAMDIOkay, Nora. Here's Azie.
DUNGEYWell, about season two, there will be a lot of the same -- I was actually really excited about how the episodes that have guests were received, because I wasn't sure about those. Those have to be a little more -- the crafting has to be really specific, because I never want it to get into sort of like minstrel area. I always want it to be very smart and very satirical. So that was really hard for me to write. But since they've been kind of popular and they seem to be working, I am still going to use that. And I'm really excited about the Thanksgiving episode, because it'll be featuring an American Indian who is from Lizzie Mae's time. So that's exciting to me. But, yeah, there will still -- there will be more guests.
NNAMDIThere were two other characters in season one. That abolitionist...
DUNGEYThe abolitionist. That's probably my favorite episode, honestly.
NNAMDIAnd your son, Jimmy.
DUNGEYSon, Jimmy. And Emma, the runaway, who's based on Oney Judge.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have calls, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. If you'd like to send us an email, it's email@example.com. Or you can shoot us a tweet at KojoShow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, joint the conversation there, hear a clip from "Ask a Slave." Have you seen episodes of "Ask a Slave?" Give us a call with any questions you have for Azie Dungey, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're taking with Azie Dungey. She is an actress who is the creator and producer of the Web series, "Ask a Slave." You can call us at 800-433-8850. But before we go any farther, you might have some 'splaining to do. Here is Toby in Baltimore, Maryland. Toby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOBYKojo, I got on the radio just a few minutes ago and heard your guest speaker and I went, oh, my God. And then, I heard it was a Web series. Now, I'm 71 and I don't know what a Web series is and I don't know how to get there. Could you tell me, so I can...
NNAMDIYes, she can.
DUNGEYYes, I can tell you. Well, a Web series is a short form, sort of like a television show, but it's made for the Web. You do know what the Web is, right?
TOBYOh, I do know the Internet. I didn't know what it was -- I never heard of a Web series.
DUNGEYYeah, it's on -- well, usually they're on YouTube. And they're usually under four minutes each -- of, you know, each episode. And if you want to find "Ask a Slave," you can go on YouTube and you can search for "Ask a Slave." Or you can go to www.askaslave.com. And then you can click on watch. And then you can watch all of the six episodes of season one.
TOBYThank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you for calling, Toby.
DUNGEYThanks for calling.
TOBYOkay. Thank you.
NNAMDIMixing comedy with even a mention of slavery is something that make a lot of people break out in a cold sweat. How nervous were you in launching this project? And what kind of feedback have you been getting?
DUNGEYWell, I was actually very nervous about sort of the new -- like I said, when I first was visioning it, it was -- envisioning it -- it was about me, you know, playing the role more. And then, the way it ended up being written, it was more like a satire using the character of Lizzie Mae to express my commentary. And in that setup, I was very concerned that it would be offensive and that people wouldn't get the, one, the contemporary aspect of it, which was that this -- these are real questions that I really got while portraying the slave, and the other aspect, which was the social commentary that I was trying to do with the satire.
DUNGEYAnd, you know, one, I never wanted to disrespect the actual people that worked and lived and went through slavery at Mount Vernon, which was one of the reasons why I made sure to use a new name of a fictional person. But, so I was, you know, I -- of course, satire is not everyone's cup of tea in general. But, yes, I was certainly nervous, especially after -- I don't know if you saw the Russell Simmons or heard about the Russell Simmons all-deaf digital...
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Yeah.
DUNGEY...spoof of, I guess, Harriet Tubman and -- yeah.
NNAMDIYeah. That was not well received.
DUNGEYNo, it wasn't. And it was about two weeks before my show was about to launch.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. That would make you nervous.
DUNGEYYes, it made me very nervous.
NNAMDIFortunately, you didn't get a similar reception.
DUNGEYNo. I didn't.
NNAMDIHere now is Nicole in Manassas, Virginia. Nicole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICOLEHi, Kojo. Big fan of your show. You were asking for callers who have worked at historical sites who are also black and that's me. I worked at the Rising Sun Tavern in Fredericksburg, Virginia when I was a college student at Mary Washington. It was a fairly neat experience.
NNAMDIWere you doing historical interpretation?
NICOLEI was. If you guys don't know, Rising Sun Tavern was owned by George Washington's younger brother, Charles and is down the street from Kenmore Plantation where George Washington's mother lived. It got -- Fredericksburg is a pretty small historical town. You know, the battlefield is down there and everything. But it got a fair number of patrons during the school year. And most of the questions I got were fairly respectful. But you do have inane comments sometimes. If I may also state, I also volunteer at a Renaissance festival here in Virginia, where I am one of less than 10 black people on cast. And I tend to get more interesting questions there. I've actually had a patron say that black people didn't exist in the 16th century.
DUNGEYA new invention.
NNAMDIYou guys are going to have to put that in one of your episodes.
NICOLEBut I definitely feel that -- I'm sorry I only know you as Lizzie Mae -- I definitely feel your experiences. And I appreciate everything you do. I love the Web series.
DUNGEYOh, great. I'm glad to hear that.
NNAMDINicole, thank you very much for your call. I'm glad you brought the issue up, because it's important to note the general tone and tenor of race relations in the U.S. While you were working at Mount Vernon, what was the mood in the U.S. more broadly, and how was it affecting you both personally and professionally?
DUNGEYHum. I would say the mood was -- there was so much duplicity in the mood. Like, everybody was really excited because we had a black president. And then it just seemed like all this latent, like, not overt racism necessarily, but covert racism -- and some just straight-up racism -- was coming to the surface. And it was almost becoming normal in a way that -- it was like these people were allowed to voice their opinions in a way that was -- that I had not experienced. I think it was also because I was younger and I was -- it was all sort of new to me, in general.
DUNGEYBut, it definitely took a toll, because I felt like, on the one hand, a lot had changed. But on this other harder hand to, like, put a finger on, so much hadn't in attitudes and in perceptions, especially about that period of our history and what that period of our history means ideologically.
NNAMDIIs that one of the things that gave rise to the series, the kind of ridiculous -- I mean, given all the range of strange, absurd and insensitive questions that made it into the series, please tell me that people did ask you good questions, too.
DUNGEYOh, people ask me good questions all the time. And most of them were children because I did a lot of school group tours and, you know, speaking to teachers' conferences and things like that. That was a big part of my job. And those people were certainly there to learn. And they -- a lot of them were already pretty well versed in the material already. So I had it great -- some great experiences that, of course, I don't put in the show. But I think one of the things that made me want to do the show was that, when people came to Mount Vernon, they had this nostalgia for this time period and for this man. And that was all fine and good, but then when it came to the experience that I was bringing to the table, there was such resistance to really, like, learning it and embracing it as part of the main narrative of our country.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Azie Dungey. She is an actress who is creator and producer of the Web series, "Ask a Slave," and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. When you go to historic sites, do you find you learn a lot through watching or interacting with interpreters on site? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. We got an email from Melissa in Missouri who says, "I do an reenactment yearly of an immigrant pack peddler based on my own grandfather's history coming to the U.S. I'm always amazed at the people who are convinced that they know about a subject than the people who did the research to do the reenactments."
DUNGEYYeah. Oh, definitely. All the time. And not just for, you know, like she's not obviously doing African American history, but definitely. There was a woman that just argued with me tooth-and-nail that George Washington had no slaves. He never had a slave. And I was like, why am I here then? Like, why are there slave quarters? You know, why are there pictures in the museum? I don't know what planet she was on, but, you know, she...
NNAMDIWhat evidence did she present?
DUNGEYShe said that she had read it in a book. And a lot of people had read things in books and that was, you know, they never could give me the book or anything and tell me what book it was. But whoever this is writing these books...
NNAMDIWe've got a female from Gretchen, are the white people asking questions on each episode actors? Can you talk about how you found them, if so?
DUNGEYYes. Everybody is an actor. And it's all scripted. And a lot of them are people that I know, friends of mine. One is actually a reverend at my church. He asked the question about, you know, "Well, isn't it great that we made you -- we brought you to this country so you could be Christian and go to Heaven now?" which is nothing like what he believes at all, clearly. But, yeah, a lot of them were friends. And then also my director, Jordan Black, he's an alum of the Groundlings, which is the comedy theater school. And he also used to write for SNL. And he brought in a lot of people that he has taught over the years or that were in the company at the Groundlings.
NNAMDIMany historic sites in the U.S. struggle to attract black visitors. I'm wondering if you think sites could do more to be appealing to African Americans and perhaps more inclusive of minority histories more broadly.
DUNGEYWell, I have to say that I think Mount Vernon has done a really great job. I think a lot has changed in the last decade. They've made a real push to better interpret and understand the lives of the slaves that lived at Mount Vernon. And, if you want to learn about that, they make it very available for you. It's certainly not something that's missing there. As far as attracting African Americans to come, I think it's -- that history is hard to step into. I remember going to Williamsburg as a nine-year-old child and being horrified, honestly, because I kept thinking that I was going to be -- this is so silly -- but I kept thinking that...
NNAMDITell it. Tell it.
DUNGEY...I was going to be stolen and sold. Like, which, I don't know where I got that from. I think it might have had something to do with the American Girl doll, Addy. I don't know if you've ever heard of her but...
DUNGEY...but she's a slave. And so I'd learned about -- I had read about slavery reading books that are about that doll. And I just kept thinking, you know, it was kind of scary to me. And my parents, they weren't really into it either. And they said, you know, do you want to go to the..., they were doing like a jump-the-broom... and I said, no. No thanks. And then we just left.
NNAMDIWell, that's coming back to haunt you, now. Now you're living in L.A. You've got this popular Web series. What's next for you and for the show?
DUNGEYWell, we are doing season two, which should go up on November 10th, which is next Sunday actually, which is kind of scary to me. And then I'm actually working on a sketch show with my friend, who played Emma the runaway in episode four, who also has her own series called "United Colors of Amani." And we're doing a sketch show that we're writing together that has nothing to do with history. It's all contemporary. And it's called Amazie, which is just our two names together: Azie and Amani.
DUNGEYAnd so that's the next Web series that I'm working on.
NNAMDIYou're going to Yale tomorrow. Why?
DUNGEYOh, yes. I'm going to Yale tomorrow. They do these talks -- these conversations with -- and it's like a tea, it's very Yale, you know? Tea and coffee and crumpets, I guess, I don't know. But it's open to the public as well, so...
NNAMDII knew the name, Dungey, was familiar. I interviewed your aunt, Sandra Dungey Glenn, back in February of last year as part of a panel talking about the end of black history month. So I'm pretty sure that she is very proud of you for continuing your own unique take on black history.
DUNGEYYes. And I'm very proud of her.
NNAMDIHopefully she's hearing and that she heard you say that. Azie Dungey -- she is an actress who's the creator and producer of the Web series, "Ask a Slave." Thank you so much for joining us.
DUNGEYThanks for having me. It was great.
NNAMDIAnd good luck to you. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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