“Ask a Slave” Asks, Can Slavery be Funny?


This is Episode 2 of the Web-based comedy series “Ask a Slave.” Azie Mira Dungey plays show host Lizzie Mae, who fields questions about her experience as slave to Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife).

Actress and slave enslaved-person reenactor Azie Mira Dungey is trying her hand at comedy which tackles a very difficult subject: American slavery. The website Ask A Slave: A Comedy Web Series features videos based on her experiences portraying slaves at Mount Vernon, a historical site in northern Virginia that preserves the estate of George Washington. Episode 2 of the show is shown above.

On the “Ask a Slave” website, Dungey discusses the genesis for her project:

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… Studying American history and the lives of these women, while virtually living in their heads and experiences each day, made me feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. This was also the time of Barack Obama’s first term in White House and his subsequent run for a second term.

I ask you to remember the racial tension that was all around. We had people saying that the President would be planting watermelons on the White House lawn. Emails were forwarded proclaiming that this was the beginning of a race war and the end of the country as we know it. People bought guns. (A lot of guns.) A scientist reported the evolutionary explanation as to why black women were the least attractive of all the races. The Oprah Show ended. It was mass chaos.

And in the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.

So, 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.

While all of that does seem like fertile ground for further exploration, making a comedy about slavery seems like a tough sell. Even today, slavery is an extremely sensitive subject that raises feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. It is perhaps the ultimate taboo topic in American history. I wonder how far the series can go before the treatment of the subject becomes, as one 19th century girl said about Civil War-related entrainment, “too perfect for enjoyment.”

But I did enjoy the first two episodes of the show, and I look forward to more. I am very interested in seeing how the creative team is going to approach the character and the content for the show. In the first episode, show host Lizzie Mae becomes somewhat flustered at the not-too-smart questions she’s getting, and comes off seeming like – dare I say it – an Angry Black Woman. I think the anger is righteous, and I like the satire in it, but some members of the audience might be turned off. The second episode makes more use of deadpan and irony, and I thought that it was funny and more palatable for a wide audience. Time will tell what kind of groove the creators will get into. I’ll certainly be watching to see how it goes.

For those who are interested:  Azie Mira Dungey is scheduled for an interview about her series on National Public Radio’s national midday show Here and Now. The show is expected to air on Friday, Sept 6th. Check your local NPR station for scheduling.

PS: I do disagree with a critique that blogger Kevin Levin has about the show. He did not find the show to be funny, and that’s OK; comedy, as with many things, is a matter of taste. But he also said this:

There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at this series. I don’t see this show as having a pedagogic intent, that is, it’s not about providing teaching moments or insights into the thought processes of visitors to historic sites and their notions of slavery. It’s just a comedy show. I don’t hold this show accountable for addressing the issues that Mr. Levin suggests. In the same way, I don’t hold Saturday Night Live’s news segment accountable for thoughtful and nuanced information about current events. I just hope they’ll be funny.

Having said that: the creative team does have a challenge to face. Their job is to get the history right – they can’t make fun of the kinds of questions they’re getting, if they get the history wrong in the answers they give. I hope they understand that they have this responsibility, and I hope they deal with it in a righteous manner.

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