Denee Benton running a bit behind for our Zoom call. “I honestly think Mercury is just laughing at anyone who has plans,” she says apologetically from the back seat of a car. She’s been busy trying on costumes, perhaps lacing corsets and trying on bustles, in preparation for season two of The Gilded Age—HBO’s hit show by Downton Abbey Creator Julian Fellowes about high society in the 1880s in New York City. Benton plays Peggy, an aspiring black writer who works as a secretary on Christine Baranskicthe widow-countess-like Agnes and befriends her cousin Marian, played by Louisa Jacobson. No spoilers, of course, but “I’m really excited about the colors we’re playing with this season and the different spaces we see Peggy in,” said Benton. “We get to see her in some worlds that we haven’t seen yet.”
While The Gilded Age received some criticism for its relatively low stakes – the highlight of an entire episode was whether or not Agnes crosses the street – for Benton, that’s not necessarily the case. Peggy, a young college graduate who dreams of becoming a journalist, has some of the most intense storylines on the show, from experiencing blatant racism in her workplace to an illegitimate birth. “You’re figuring out if you’re going for tea, and I’m figuring out if my baby is still alive,” she jokes.
“I love Peggy’s storyline so much – the other tightrope she walks that a lot of the other characters just don’t have to deal with, which I think is very common for black people in larger white spaces,” Benton adds. It’s a balancing act she’s very well acquainted with, going back to her days at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Florida. “I went to a really white high school, and I remember having so much crook syndrome,” Benton says. She corrects herself. “No impostor syndrome — I just didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere, which I think a lot of black kids educated in white spaces go through.” Benton remembers playing Rapunzel in In the woods her freshman year of high school, and even then eager not to be placed in a box or category because of her race.
“I don’t want to just set up a rom-com and see only white women. Cinderella and Next to Normal and Bad– all those musicals I was obsessed with – I thought, why can’t I be?”
By the time Benton got to Broadway, the Great White Way was starting to look a bit less so, with musicals like Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Shake along; and Hamilton expanding what was once possible for actors of color on stage. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious drama school, Benton starred in two of them, playing Russian aristocrat Natasha from Tolstoy’s War and peace in the great comet, and then followed a stint playing Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton. “Natasha, Eliza, they’re still white women,” Benton notes. “I’m going to do this color-conscious, blend-y thing. But when I was doing great comet, I was like, yes, but there were also black women who took up this kind of space. Where are our aristocratic stories and historical dramas?”
Benton and Peggy go to investigate that wish. She is proud of how The Gilded Age has shed light on the Black experience at the end of the Reconstruction Era – an oft-forgotten period in history. “Those stories have really been erased from our history books on purpose,” Benton says. “The Reconstruction Period is probably one of the most insightful eras about why modern race relations are the way they are today, and we’re getting a section on it in our history books.”
Peggy’s bow on The Gilded Age inspired essays and articles about the rarely seen but thriving African American communities that existed during this time. “We were just regular, decent people,” she says. “The power of white supremacy is so degrading in that way that it limits our imagination. It makes us really irrational. Because when you hear it, you’re like, oh yeah, of course – they were just people who existed in different time periods. On the one hand, I’m annoyed at how shocked we all are. And I’m so inspired to be part of that resistance to the way whitewashing stories make us forget who we are and who we’ve been.”
Some of Benton’s most cherished moments on The Gilded Age include everyday aspects of the black experience, apart from the white gaze. She mentions Peggy’s scene at lunch with her mother, Dorothy Scott, played by theater legend Audra McDonald, and her father, Arthur Scott (John Douglas Thompson), as one of her favorites in the series. “We really get to see the black interior life,” she says. “It just felt so human — not just looking at these black characters through the historical context of how they relate to whiteness, or how they relate to power structures, but just what it was like in your house with your mother asking you if you goes to church on Sunday.”
While Peggy is mainly surrounded by white people on screen, Benton made sure that behind the scenes there were other black women involved in the creation of the character, such as the director and the executive producer. Salli Richardson Whitfield. “As great as storyteller Julian is, I was well aware that this story is not just set in America, but [Julian has] written in a black American woman,” she says. By the time production began, Benton says, “What was once a creative team of four white men became a creative team of them and two co-EPs for black women, a writer for black women, and an EP for black women and a director for black women — that’s what I’m most proud of.”