“PBS News Hour” aired an on-set look at PBS’ new Civil War drama series “Mercy Street” which premieres tonight. There’s a segment in the report that focuses on McKinley Belcher III’s character, Sam Diggs – a free black laborer who harbors a secret knowledge of and ability in medicine, which he learned as a young servant in an enlightened northern doctor’s household. Sam is qualified to do much more than anyone would allow at this point. A black man with education and talent, he is caught between two worlds and two modes of thinking about the future.
In the PBS on-set report, the character is described as having one of the more “complex and moving stories” of the series, which I suppose is a good thing for the actor, and for the audience, despite any aversions any of us may have to the fact that it’s yet another trip back to a time in our history that some of us feel we already see too much of in film and TV. At least we can count on one of the few black characters in the series to be drawn with complexities and agency. We’ll see.
Executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Lisa Q. Wolfinger and David Zabel, “Mercy Street,” set on the Civil War home front of Virginia in the spring of 1862, follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict; Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a naive young Confederate belle. Political persuasions open a window into a world where the unprecedented medical demands create a chaotic atmosphere and challenge doctors, nurses and patients in unimaginable ways, while the pressure of Union occupation threatens to tear apart the Confederate family.
In terms of black actors who appear in the series (it is a Civil War drama after all), Shalita Grant and L. Scott Caldwell join McKinley Belcher III, appearing in all 6 episodes.
From the PBS press release on each character:
Grant plays Aurelia Johnson – a young “contraband” (escaped slave) employed as a laundress at the hospital that’s at the center of the series. She has seen and endured things as a house slave on a southern plantation that she tries to bury deep within. Her life here is not much better than the one she fled. There is an undeniable romantic pull between her and Sam Diggs, although it is complicated by her involvement with the steward, Silas Bullen. Aurelia is single-mindedly focused on a goal that she believes can only be accomplished with the help of Silas and his many shady connections and illicit activities.
And L. Scott Caldwell plays Belinda Gibson – a house slave on the plantation of the Green family. The war has turned her world upside down and yet, despite he owner’s offer of freedom and the lure of new opportunities, she chooses to stay put out of loyalty, love and a practical realization that freedom may not be all it’s cracked up to be. At least here in the Green home she has respect, three square meals a day and a roof over her head. The main drawback, now that many of the servants have left, is that Belinda must fulfill a multiplicity of duties: lady’s maid, seamstress, cook, laundress and housekeeper. Sometimes, she wonders if she has made the right choice, and continues privately to ponder her options.
Based on both historical and composite characters, ‘Mercy Street’ the six-episode Civil War drama series premieres on PBS stations tonight, January 17, 2016, directly following “Downton Abbey” on Masterpiece.
PBS already released the first episode of the series online, which I’ve embedded below, underneath the on-set preview which gives you a first glimpse at what to expect, before diving into episode 1.
And here’s episode 1 of the series: