‘The Gilded Age’ Explores a Rarely Seen Chapter of Black History

In this week’s episode of “The Gilded Age,” the HBO period drama set in late 19th-century New York, the young aspirant Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) makes an unannounced visit to the Brooklyn home of her new friend, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), hoping to surprise her with a gift of sorts: a bag of old used shoes.

But Marian, who is white, receives the real surprise. She discovers that the Scott family, which is Black, is wealthy and educated. Peggy’s parents, Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), a pharmacist, and Dorothy (Audra McDonald), a pianist, live in an opulent brownstone with its own staff, and they are definitely not in need of the shoes.

The existence of an elite Black population in this era of the city — Black men and women who had careers, money and influence — is a factual reality, though one that is not often explored in popular culture.

As the show’s historical consultant, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, said: “What does the average person know about the Black elite in New York in the 1880s? The answer is very little if anything.” To look at how film and television have generally treated this era of Black history, she added, “There’s this huge gap between the Civil War and slavery and then, maybe, the Harlem Renaissance — as if nothing happened in between.”

For the people who produce and perform “The Gilded Age,” the Scott family represented an opportunity to dramatize this overlooked chapter — to transcend enduring stereotypes and give these characters inner lives and a surrounding world as rich as those of their white counterparts. (Brooklyn, where the Scotts live, was a separate city in the 1880s; it became part of New York City in 1898.)

While these intentions were present from the inception of the series, they took on a particular urgency during a pandemic-imposed shutdown, beginning in March 2020, and amid the nationwide period of racial justice protest and reflection that followed a few months later — events that had an impact behind the scenes of the show as well as in front of its cameras.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of “The Gilded Age,” said in an email that “it seemed dishonest to set a show in 1882,” less than two decades after the abolition of slavery in the United States, “and not have characters who have been affected by this directly.”

Fellowes, who previously created the British period drama “Downton Abbey,” said that including characters like the Scotts in his HBO series “also allowed us to make some points about the challenges of being African American, even successful and affluent African American, in New York at that time.”

Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of books like “She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman,” started consulting on “The Gilded Age” in August 2019.

Black New Yorkers of the era “go to Brooklyn because they’re running from persecution,” she said. “They’re running from the Draft Riots of 1863. They’re looking for a place to build their homes, to build their businesses, to create a life that was as free as possible from humiliation and violence.”

In the first episode of “The Gilded Age,” Peggy befriends Marian and follows her into the Manhattan home of her aristocratic aunt Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). Fellowes said the Peggy character was drawn from research he had done on this time period and from books like Carla L. Peterson’s “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.”

Benton, who joined “The Gilded Age” in the fall of 2019, was among the earliest actors cast in the series, having previously starred in Broadway musicals like “Hamilton” and “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”

“If you’re looking for a period drama Black woman, I guess that’s who I am now,” Benton said. “Which I’m not mad about.”

McDonald, a six-time Tony Award-winner who was hired several weeks after Benton, said that when she learned Benton had joined “The Gilded Age,” she was happy for her industry colleague but also concerned that the series was looking to fill a quota.

“When I heard that Denée was cast, I was like OK, that’s the one Black person they’re bringing into all of this white space,” McDonald said. “I think Denée is such a light and such a talent, I hoped they gave her a lot of stuff to do. But I didn’t in a million years think that there would be more of us.”

Benton said that she had also had reservations about how her character would be presented.

“The heart and the intention of Peggy were always there,” she said, but “there were some nuances to the way her story played out” that bothered her, and she expressed these apprehensions to “Gilded Age” producers and HBO.

“What excited me and made me want to advocate for more change was because of what was already there,” Benton said.

An early concern arose from a narrative puzzle presented in the first episode of the series: How would Peggy gain permission to stay with Marian in her aunt’s home?

One solution presented in an early draft of the script was that Peggy could pretend to be Marian’s domestic servant. But while this might have made logical sense, Benton said she found the idea uncomfortable.

“The one Black person that you’re going to see regularly, does that need to be a trope?” she said. “Have we not seen enough Black women play that role on television?”

Fellowes said that Peggy “was never going to be a real servant, but even pretending to be one took us in the wrong direction.” He said that other producers had expressed similar misgivings, adding, “Denée’s concerns were a useful and productive contribution to this debate, but once the idea had been voiced, I don’t remember anyone disagreeing.”

Benton said producers were receptive when she would flag issues like this in the period between the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020, while “The Gilded Age” was preparing to shoot its first season.

“I was at the mercy of people choosing to listen to me,” she said. “I was like, look, even though you guys are listening — it’s amazing — there needs to be more.”

The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 forced “The Gilded Age” to halt production before filming started. Later that spring, the police killing of George Floyd led to weeks of social protest, and it also prompted a widespread re-examination about the presentation of Black people in theater, film, television and throughout the media.

It was a national conversation that played out in its own way at “The Gilded Age.” In June 2020, Benton sent a letter to HBO asking for further changes at the show. Her central request, Benton said, was that “we now have time to really add some Black women to the central nervous system of the creative team.”

Benton said she felt an expectation to speak out during this time. “I could feel the pins and needles of everyone waiting to hear from me in some capacity,” she said. “In the way I think all corporations were like, oh God, are we next?”

(She declined to provide her letter for this article. “In one world it would be beautiful for everyone to see that letter and see what’s possible,” she said. “But I want the focus to be on the fact that the changes did occur.”)

By that time, HBO and producers at “The Gilded Age” were already in the process of recruiting and promoting women of color at the show.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the actor (“A Low Down Dirty Shame”) and director of TV shows like “Queen Sugar,” “Black-ish” and “The Wheel of Time,” was initially hired in November 2019 to direct two episodes of the series.

Richardson-Whitfield said she was brought onto “The Gilded Age” because “they were looking for a director of color, because they knew that they were going to have these story lines and they wanted to make sure they were done authentically.”

She was made an executive producer in June 2020, and she went on to direct four episodes of the series. Dunbar, the historical consultant, had been made a consulting producer in the winter of early 2020 and then was promoted to co-executive producer in June 2020.

A search for another writer to join the “Gilded Age” staff that began at the start of 2020 identified Sonja Warfield (“Will & Grace,” “The Game”), who had been developing another project at HBO. She joined “The Gilded Age” as a writer and co-executive producer that July, after the network set up a meeting between her and Fellowes.

“I wasn’t even sure it was a job at first,” Warfield said. “I was meeting with Julian and then they were like, ‘Oh, you’re hired.’ And I thought, What? OK. Great.”

Warfield said she was not chosen solely to write Black characters on “The Gilded Age.” “I was hired to write for everyone,” she said. But she said she was able to bring details from her own family history to the series, like making McDonald’s character a musician, a trait inspired by one of her great-grandmothers, who played and taught piano.

“I wanted to show that these people were cultured and educated,” Warfield explained. “It was strategic.”

Dunbar said that Benton’s letter was “part of a larger push” to make changes and improvements at “The Gilded Age.”

“There was an organic evolution that was spurred by the moment in which we were living,” Dunbar said. “Denée’s letter was helpful. It was really helpful to have a cast member give their opinions. In addition to that, there were definitely other conversations and work that was being done.”

HBO said in a statement that the network and Universal Television, its studio partner on the series, “had redoubled efforts to expand the series creative team to include more Black women during production” by June 2020. The statement added that Benton’s letter “shined an important light on this crucial issue.”

Filming on “The Gilded Age” finally began in September 2020. When McDonald was approached to play Peggy’s mother, Dorothy, she said she had some hesitations.

“I just worried, am I going to be a maid?” she said. But after reading a sample scene that showed Peggy and Dorothy discussing details of their prosperous life over lunch at a restaurant for Black customers, McDonald said, “I was like, oh, yes. Because it’s not what’s expected. It’s not what’s ever depicted.”

Fellowes said that he had always intended for the series to include the characters of Dorothy and Arthur Scott “to give Peggy a family context” and “broaden her story.”

The show’s expanded creative team added more Black characters, like the journalist and newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune, a historical figure played by Sullivan Jones. The group also solved narrative problems, like having Peggy take a job as a secretary to Agnes, and helped redesign Peggy’s wardrobe.

As Benton explained: “There’s a real difference in the way that I would have dressed to play a maid than to play a secretary — someone with her own sovereignty and interior life that wasn’t tied to Marian’s side. That really trickled into every part of the way my character showed up.”

Thompson, a star of theater (“The Merchant of Venice”) and TV (“Mare of Easttown”), said he hoped to see “The Gilded Age” continue to break new ground in chronicling the Scott family and this era of Black history. (HBO announced on Monday that it has renewed the series for a second season.)

“There’s more to go — you can always go deeper and wider,” he said. “But I also feel like the table has been set for the introduction of this family, for an audience to say, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t even know there was a class of people like this that existed.’”

Richardson-Whitfield, who directed this week’s episode, said that there was value in teaching this history. But she said it was also important for “The Gilded Age” to find the humanity in sequences like Marian’s awkward introduction to the Scott household.

“I just had so much fun with that scene, from the moment Marian walks out of that carriage,” she said. “The looks from the people on the street. The astonishment when she comes through the door. I wanted to make a meal out of it.”

As with any other period drama, Richardson-Whitfield said, “It’s about telling a story and getting great performances. And showing off those beautiful clothes.”

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