By Helena Andrews-Dyer, The Washington Post
Fans of high-society high jinks will instantly recognize the dazzling and dizzying characters of “The Gilded Age,” the long-gestating period drama from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes that premiered Monday on HBO. But there is one conspicuous exception.
Among the blindingly White milieu of social-climbing “wives of,” acid-tongued grand dames, bored heiresses, buzzing staff and one wide-eyed country cousin is Peggy Scott, an ambitious young Black woman who shines instead of shrinks.
In the first episode, Scott, played by actress Denée Benton, arrives to newly gold-plated Manhattan via train with the show’s fish-out-of-water character Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). On-screen, Peggy’s journey is rather quick. Off-screen, it took 10 years, two networks, at least four Black women and exactly one global pandemic for her to get here.
It started with Fellowes, who, while doing research for “Downton,” took an intellectual detour into new moneyed New York and become fascinated with the robber barons of the era. They redefined what it meant to be rich, laying the Italian-marbled foundation for economic inequity as they built their grand palaces across from Central Park.
“How Peggy came around is that the more I researched this period of American history, the more it seemed to me that the whole Black community, they were so substantial a part of the American people at that time,” Fellowes said in an interview before asking his co-writer Sonja Warfield for an assist. “Sonja, what was the name of that period? The rebuilding?”
“The Reconstruction,” answered Warfield, who doubled the number of heads in the “Gilded Age” writer’s room from one to two when she joined Fellowes, famous for writing his expanding canon of British period dramas — including all six seasons of “Downton” — entirely on his own.
“I felt we very much needed a Black story line and principal character,” he said. “The revelation that there was this functioning prosperous Black bourgeois in New York in the second half of the 19th century was kind of new to me. And I was so interested to learn it, then I just felt that other people might be interested, too. It was really as simple as that.”
But is wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Benton, who plays Peggy, said the self-possessed young woman viewers meet in the show’s premiere is not the same woman she met on the page in 2019. That beta version was flatter, lacking a world of her own outside of the venerable van Rhijn household, where she works as a secretary.
Peggy’s broad strokes were a start, said Benton, a stage actress who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2017 for her starring role in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and played Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton” on Broadway. The actress knows her 19th-century female characters and saw a clear opportunity for Peggy to stretch — to give her an interior life, her own agency, her own world.
To do that, the character was afforded “little moments of dignity,” Benton said. Peggy doesn’t solely exist in the all-White world of the Gilded Age; she has her own purpose, her own family drama and a secret the audience won’t learn until several episodes in. Later in the series, viewers will see her in a world that is entirely Black and unconcerned with whatever drama is going on in the burgeoning Upper East Side. Peggy’s story also has modern-day relatability: the tension of respectability politics in the Black community, code-switching between racial worlds and the stress of being “the only one” in any given room.
And should viewers get their Googling fingers in a knot looking up the probability of Peggy’s existence, historian Erica Dunbar, who played such an integral role in the production she was eventually promoted to co-executive producer, said you simply can’t do a show about New York without Black people.
“This is about world-making,” Dunbar said. “This is about bringing characters who’ve been relegated to the margins into the center.”
It’s also about correcting the record. Too often, Black American cinematic history focuses on slavery, the Civil War, the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era. “There is a 40- to 50-year gap that hasn’t been explored in ways that are nuanced and show Black life in the North,” Dunbar explained.
Added Benton, “This is the Peggy that’s doing the ancestors proud.”
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