Denée Benton isn’t one to be silenced. The Tony-nominated actress shared an early experience when she was cast in the lead role of Natasha Rostova in the Broadway show “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812.”
“I had tweeted something about Malcolm X and one of the producers gave me this whole spiel about not burning bridges and how there would be a lot of people who are rooting for me to fail,” Benton said. “It was essentially ‘little Black girl shut up and be grateful.’ It’s 2016, I’m playing this Russian countess, and in your mind, I should be kissing your feet. It has nothing to do with my skill. The fact that my parents paid for my expensive education, but in your mind, I should be thankful for whatever scraps.”
That passion and fire would take Benton far in her career. She would move on to star in another Broadway behemoth, “Hamilton,” as Eliza Hamilton and is now part of the new HBO period prestige drama, “The Gilded Age.” Created by “Downtown Abbey” producer Julian Fellowes, “The Gilded Age” takes place in 1880s New York and follows the story of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who moves from rural Pennsylvania after the death of her father to live with her two aristocratic aunts Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). Benton plays Peggy Scott, a smart and enterprising writer who befriends Marian and ends up working for Agnes.
For Benton, it was crucial that her portrayal of a young Black woman in the late 19th century be as authentic as possible. If Peggy Scott defies the stereotypes of Black characters typically seen in period dramas, it’s by design – Benton advocated for diverse representation behind the camera as well. A trio of Black women creatives — producer/director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, writer/producer Sonja Warfield, and historian Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar — came on board, bringing not only their respective expertise to the show, but also ensuring that the Black characters in “The Gilded Age” were given depth and autonomy.
“I just want Black viewers to know you get to claim what’s yours, every layer and texture that you can imagine for life has existed for Black people and will always exist. And so, don’t let the narratives of erasure make you forget who you are,” said Benton.
IndieWire caught up with Benton over Zoom to discuss the importance of Black characters in period dramas, working with Broadway legend Audra McDonald, and why Black women of today will relate to Peggy Scott.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
INIDIEWIRE: Watching “The Gilded Age,” I feel it’s right on time since we’re in the midst of a national debate of teaching critical race theory in our schools. In certain period dramas, there tends to be a total erasure or misrepresentation of Black characters.
DENEE BENTON: For me, it was always really interesting because yes, it’s critical race theory, but it’s also just American history. Anything other than that is just propaganda. And if you are against telling the truth that these people actually just existed, then what is your ulterior motive? I think it was really important to me that Peggy not only be a token, but that if we are going to represent Black people in the show, then they need to be living and breathing and nuanced. Otherwise, I’m like, leave us out of it. If you want to tell a White fantasy, then tell a White fantasy. But if you want to include us, include my face in any way, then make an attempt to get to [the truth] of that life.
In Episode 3, Peggy meets with the publisher of The Christian Advocate magazine and is asked to change the race of the main character of her short story from a Black girl to white. It was almost surreal to witness since this kind of “whitewashing” still plays out with Black creatives today. How did you relate to this storyline with your own experiences as an actress, and did you have any creative input?
With that particular storyline, the goal obviously was to always have her be published but it changed with all of the discourse and feedback. Originally, there were different versions where Peggy said yes. There were other versions where Peggy writes under Marian’s name. One of the big things that I was so thankful for — Dr. Dunbar and I — we asked, “Why can’t Peggy write for a Black publication?” So many Black writers have had to make that terrible choice and there are also many who didn’t because we had our own publications and we had our own spaces. That was one of those collaborative processes where we really advocated for, let’s show a different story. Let’s show we can open up a whole other world through this story.
I loved how Peggy stood up for herself in that meeting because even the publisher admitted that while he and other White readers loved the story, he felt changing the race of the main character would give it more “mainstream appeal.”
My favorite line is Peggy saying no white writer would have to make the choice that you’re asking me to make. The humanity that I also love about that storyline is right after we see Peggy start to doubt herself, which we all go through. “Should I not have said anything? Should I just take the check”? It’s so human.
I’m fascinated by the power dynamics in this interracial friendship between Peggy and Marian. While Peggy is educated and comes from a middle-class family, Marian has white privilege on her side. In some ways Peggy is “freer” than Marian — she can go out without a chaperone and pursue a career as a writer. Yet Peggy is without the societal protection Marian enjoys and wouldn’t be accepted in Marian’s world because of her race.
I’m so happy you picked up on that because I would talk about that all the time: the particular shackle of white supremacy and white feminism. White men aren’t free under patriarchy, and white women aren’t free under white supremacy. Marian’s shackled by this role that she has to play. You get to see Marian tell Peggy, “Oh my God, your life sounds so exciting! You’re getting go to work and you get to write,” but it’s hard fought. Peggy worked hard for it but there is a liberation that comes from refusing the status quo in the way that Peggy has.
The great Audra McDonald plays your mother on the show. As a theater actress who looked up to Audra as an inspiration, what was it like working with her?
When I was nominated for a Tony, I was at an event with Audra and I was too nervous to introduce myself. I remember I beat myself up thinking that was my one moment to meet Audra and I’m never going to meet her again. I should have had the courage to tell her what she means to me and all these things. So when the director told me that she was being considered for the role — tears came to my eyes. It was just so special. And then, on top of that to get to work with Audra, she’s so grounded and warm, just an incredible craftswoman. Both she and the actor who plays my dad, John Douglas Thompson, it was like a master class. You can’t help but rise to the occasion.
“The Gilded Age” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.