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Because of Black women, the period drama ‘The Gilded Age’ has a Black story line done right

From right, Denée Benton, Cynthia Nixon, Louisa Jacobson and Christine Baranski in “The Gilded Age.” (Alison Rosa/HBO)
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Fans of high-society high jinks will instantly recognize the dazzling and dizzying characters of “The Gilded Age,” the long-gestating period drama from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes that premiered Monday on HBO. But there is one conspicuous exception.

Among the blindingly White milieu of social-climbing “wives of,” acid-tongued grand dames, bored heiresses, buzzing staff and one wide-eyed country cousin is Peggy Scott, an ambitious young Black woman who shines instead of shrinks.

In the first episode, Scott, played by actress Denée Benton, arrives to newly gold-plated Manhattan via train with the show’s fish-out-of-water character Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). On-screen, Peggy’s journey is rather quick. Off-screen, it took 10 years, two networks, at least four Black women and exactly one global pandemic for her to get here.

It started with Fellowes, who, while doing research for “Downton,” took an intellectual detour into new moneyed New York and become fascinated with the robber barons of the era. They redefined what it meant to be rich, laying the Italian-marbled foundation for economic inequity as they built their grand palaces across from Central Park.

“How Peggy came around is that the more I researched this period of American history, the more it seemed to me that the whole Black community, they were so substantial a part of the American people at that time,” Fellowes said in an interview before asking his co-writer Sonja Warfield for an assist. “Sonja, what was the name of that period? The rebuilding?”

“The Reconstruction,” answered Warfield, who doubled the number of heads in the “Gilded Age” writer’s room from one to two when she joined Fellowes, famous for writing his expanding canon of British period dramas — including all six seasons of “Downton” — entirely on his own.

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“I felt we very much needed a Black story line and principal character,” he said. “The revelation that there was this functioning prosperous Black bourgeois in New York in the second half of the 19th century was kind of new to me. And I was so interested to learn it, then I just felt that other people might be interested, too. It was really as simple as that.”

But is wasn’t quite as simple as that.

Benton said the self-possessed young woman viewers meet in the show’s premiere is not the same woman she met on the page in 2019. That beta version was flatter, lacking a world of her own outside of the venerable van Rhijn household, where she works as a secretary.

Peggy’s broad strokes were a start, said Benton, a stage actress who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2017 for her starring role in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and played Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton” on Broadway. The actress knows her 19th-century female characters and saw a clear opportunity for Peggy to stretch — to give her an interior life, her own agency, her own world.

To do that, the character was afforded “little moments of dignity,” Benton said. Peggy doesn’t solely exist in the all-White world of the Gilded Age; she has her own purpose, her own family drama and a secret the audience won’t learn until several episodes in. Later in the series, viewers will see her in a world that is entirely Black and unconcerned with whatever drama is going on in the burgeoning Upper East Side. Peggy’s story also has modern-day relatability: the tension of respectability politics in the Black community, code-switching between racial worlds and the stress of being “the only one” in any given room.

And should viewers get their Googling fingers in a knot looking up the probability of Peggy’s existence, historian Erica Dunbar, who played such an integral role in the production she was eventually promoted to co-executive producer, said you simply can’t do a show about New York without Black people.

“This is about world-making,” Dunbar said. “This is about bringing characters who’ve been relegated to the margins into the center.”

It’s also about correcting the record. Too often, Black American cinematic history focuses on slavery, the Civil War, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights era. “There is a 40- to 50-year gap that hasn’t been explored in ways that are nuanced and show Black life in the North,” Dunbar explained.

Added Benton, “This is the Peggy that’s doing the ancestors proud.”

Casting Black actors in period pieces isn’t diversity. It’s history.

Peggy’s added dimensions would not have been possible without the help of Dunbar, director and executive producer Salli Richardson-Whitfield, and writer and co-executive producer Warfield, Benton said. “There had to be Black women’s creative voices in the room.”

One such voice, Richardson-Whitfield, agreed. But she added a necessary caveat.

“You need to have other people in the room to raise their hand and go, 'Ding ding ding, that wouldn’t happen’ or 'that doesn’t make sense,” said the director. “And when you have them, you need to listen to them.”

That’s what happened on “The Gilded Age” set, said Richardson-Whitfield, who described the creative process of the show as especially satisfying. “I feel like people valued my opinion.”

In short, she said, Fellowes — and the rest of the production team — admitted to knowing what they didn’t know. “It’s very hard for a White older English gentleman to have any idea of what it would be like to be a Black woman in the 1880s — or even present day,” she said. “You need authentic voices and you don’t need just one. My perspective is going to be different from Denée and Sonja’s. You need more than one voice in the room to fight the good fight.”

Richardson-Whitfield recalled one such “fight” during filming for Episode 5, which, without giving anything away, introduces the audience to Peggy’s family. The director wanted to make sure viewers saw the beauty of Black Brooklyn in the 1880s that was a safe haven from the outside world. So when it was suggested that a White police officer be seen strolling the sidewalks, she put the kibosh on that idea. “That was not going to be in my scene,” she said.

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The director also walked through an interior setup and took down art she thought was out of place. “They wouldn’t have a portrait of this old White man in their house,” she said. When a props person pushed back, Richardson-Whitfield stood firm. “I’m like, ‘Listen, just take that picture down, it doesn’t make any sense.’ ”

On the whole, Peggy’s character is the sum of several parts — the writers who put her on the page, the historian who made sure she was authentic, the actress who embodies her and the director who lets her play. The fact that all these gears were being turned by Black women on a big-budget production backed by a legacy cabler is nearly as historic as the subject matter itself.

“This process was like no other,” Warfield said. With one exception, Warfield — who got her big break on the classic comedy “Will and Grace” — has always been the only Black person in the writer’s room. Some showrunners she’s worked with over the past 20 years were just trying to “check a box and get the network off their backs” by hiring a Black writer. This show, she said, was different.

“I have not ever been in a collaborative TV situation like this,” she said. “It makes for a better production and that comes from the top.”

For his part, Fellowes wanted to make clear that Warfield was a writing partner for the entire series and that she wasn’t in the room solely for Peggy’s story line. The pair alternated first drafts and offered notes on one another’s work before Fellowes did a final “polish” of the completed script so the series had a singular voice.

“It’s not as if Sonja isn’t writing Agnes, [played by Christine Baranski,] and I’m not writing Peggy,” he said.

Both writers and the larger creative team have a shared hope for the show: that audiences come away from the grand palaces, silk corsets and over-the-top lobster feasts having actually learned something.

Fellowes has a very specific fantasy that involves Wikipedia.

“I hope people will say, ‘Oh I don’t believe that would have happened then,’ and they’ll type it out and they’ll find it did,” he said. “And that seems a good thing.”

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