‘Ask a Slave’ talks race and gender issues in the age of YouTube


Azie Dungey, who stands next to a George Washington figure at Madame Tussauds, is the creator of the webseries "Ask A Slave." In it, she's dressed as Martha Washington's lady's maid, a character she played when she worked at Mount Vernon. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

It’s 1795, and George Washington’s most acerbic-tongued housemaid is answering questions — on YouTube.

Her name is Lizzie Mae, and she is not here for your foolishness. She’s got shirts to sew and chamber pots to scrub.

“How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished Founding Father?” a visitor asks. “Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?”

“Why, yes,” Lizzie Mae responds sweetly. “It said: ‘Wanted. One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto, saucy, with breedin’ hips. Must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays.’ ”

Lizzie Mae continues, her voice dripping with false enthusiasm.

“ ‘But you get to wear a pretty dress, and if you’re lucky, you just might carry some famous white man’s bastard child.’ So, you better believe I read that and ran right over and said, ‘Sign me up!’ ”

Lizzie Mae is the brainchild of Azie Dungey, creator of the Web series “Ask a Slave.” She came up with the idea after portraying Caroline Branham, an actual slave, for nearly two years while she worked as a character actor at Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation home.

Dungey thought she had enough material for one season: six episodes, each four to five minutes long, featuring her at a small table with a cup of tea and portraits of the Washingtons behind her. Her braided hair is covered with a frilly white cap, and Lizzie Mae, clad in a high-waisted Colonial dress and apron, answers questions in the voice of a folksy, Southern grandmother about what it’s like being owned by the father of our country and his wife.

The questions are based on interactions Dungey had while working at Mount Vernon, and though they all expose some level of ignorance about slavery, there were some especially surprising gems that made it into an episode called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”

Questioner: “What does George Washington think of Abraham Lincoln freeing all of his slaves?”

Lizzie Mae: “Can you say that again, please? I want to make sure everyone can hear you.”

The question is repeated.

Lizzie Mae, matter-of-factly: “Well, I don’t know an Abraham Lincoln, but he better not free another man’s slave unless he’s trying to get shot in the head.”

The second and final season of “Ask a Slave” premiered Monday. Normally, Dungey uploads a new video every Sunday, usually before 9 a.m. Pacific time (she lives in Los Angeles), and she releases one episode per week, much like a television series.

One week, Dungey had trouble with the upload. By noon, with no new show in sight, her hard-core fans were going nuts.

“People were writing on the wall, ‘What are you DOING? Where is our show?’ ” Dungey said. “One guy was like, ‘I can’t take this. Where’s my show?’ It was really gratifying, but it was a little bit crazy.”

Dungey initially feared that the show’s connection with slavery would turn people off. “When I was making it, I thought, ‘I don’t want it to be terrible,’ ” she said.

Far from terrible, the series and its success (the first episode has had more than 660,000 views) catapulted Dungey onto Salon.com’s list of “10 talented black women ‘SNL’ could hire.”

Now, she’s part of a budding revolution. Fed up with not finding accurate or nuanced representations of themselves in television or film, many black women have found a home on YouTube, creating series and parodies that address serious issues surrounding race and gender.

Issa Rae, the creator of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” and Franchesca Ramsey, the creator of “S--- White Girls Say . . . to Black Girls,” were among the first to see their videos go viral.

These aren’t just one-offs filmed in someone’s basement, either. They’re characterized by high production values and thoughtful scripts. Most have a writer, director and producer. Jordan Black, the director of “Ask a Slave,” is a former “Saturday Night Live” writer and was a member of the Groundlings improv company.

And Dungey and her sketch comedy partner, Amani Starnes, are working on a new series called “Amazie,” which is set to debut next month.

Dungey, who grew up in College Park, is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Starnes is a ­Yale-educated actress who performs with the experimental theater company the Actors’ Gang. When the two met, Starnes said, “It was the first time in a long time where I had that middle school feeling where you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, my best friend!’ Instantly!”

There’s a message behind “Ask a Slave” that Dungey addressed in a video she made with Starnes after seeing the movie “12 Years a Slave.”

“I am not talking about slavery in my show,” Dungey said. “I’m talking about modern racism, and I’m talking about modern ignorance. You’re an irresponsible person if you don’t know American history, because it’s connected to politics. It’s connected to racism that still exists. It’s connected to everything.”

As for Starnes, her series “United Colors of Amani” follows her trials as a biracial actress. All episodes are based on Starnes’s life experiences, although some are composites.

“There’s a little bit of Azie in my Web series, and there’s a little bit of me in hers,” Starnes said.

Sometimes, “United Colors of Amani” can seem like a 2013 continuation of “Hollywood Shuffle.” In one audition for a toothpaste commercial, Starnes encounters a particularly color-struck casting director who says, “Black girls and redheads — that’s what it takes to sell facial cream.” She swears this happened.

Starnes started acting in Kansas City, Mo., when she was 10. She played Dot in a Coterie Theatre adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” that explored L. Frank Baum’s classic tale through the eyes of a street urchin who breaks into his house. In the play, Baum is putting the finishing touches on “The Wizard of Oz,” and he and Dot act it out together.

Then the reviews came out. “I remember being devastated because they were like, ‘Why would they cast a little black girl in this role? It doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Starnes said. “I was the youngest kid they’d ever cast for anything, and I felt so accomplished and special, and that was the first time that even remotely dawned on me.”

Both Dungey and Starnes grew up with mothers who were interested in the social sciences, and it has influenced their worldviews and work. When she was in high school, Starnes said she was reading about America’s relationship with the black female body while many of her peers were muddling through “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet.”

If the duo found a funny way to talk about slavery, can gender be far behind?

“The whole idea of performing race and gender and sexuality is something I’ve been fascinated by for a really long time,” Starnes said. “Hopefully in the next season, we can get into gender roles a little bit, too.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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