Its 1795, and George Washingtons most acerbic-tongued housemaid is answering questions – on YouTube.
Her name is Lizzie Mae, and she is not here for your foolishness. Shes got shirts to sew and chamber pots to scrub.
How did you get to be housemaid for such a distinguished Founding Father? a visitor asks. Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?
Why, yes, Lizzie Mae responds sweetly. It said: Wanted. One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto, saucy, with breedin hips. Must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays.
Lizzie Mae continues, her voice dripping with false enthusiasm.
But you get to wear a pretty dress, and if youre lucky, you just might carry some famous white mans bastard child. So, you better believe I read that and ran right over and said, Sign me up!
Lizzie Mae is the brainchild of Azie Dungey, creator of the Web series Ask a Slave. She came up with the idea after portraying Caroline Branham, an actual slave, for nearly two years while she worked as a character actor at Mount Vernon, Washingtons plantation home.
Dungey thought she had enough material for one season: six episodes, each four to five minutes long, featuring her at a small table with a cup of tea and portraits of the Washingtons behind her.
Her braided hair is covered with a frilly white cap, and Lizzie Mae, clad in a high-waisted Colonial dress and apron, answers questions in the voice of a folksy, Southern grandmother about what its like being owned by the father of our country and his wife.
The questions are based on interactions Dungey had while working at Mount Vernon, and though they all expose some level of ignorance about slavery, there were some especially surprising gems that made it into an episode called You Cant Make This Stuff Up.
Questioner: What does George Washington think of Abraham Lincoln freeing all of his slaves?
Lizzie Mae: Can you say that again, please? I want to make sure everyone can hear you.
The question is repeated.
Lizzie Mae, matter-of-factly: Well, I dont know an Abraham Lincoln, but he better not free another mans slave unless hes trying to get shot in the head.
The second and final season of Ask a Slave premiered last week. Normally, Dungey uploads a new video every Sunday.
One week, Dungey had trouble with the upload. By noon, with no new show in sight, her hard-core fans were going nuts.
People were writing on the wall, What are you doing? Where is our show? Dungey said. One guy was like, I cant take this. Wheres my show? It was really gratifying, but it was a little bit crazy.
Dungey initially feared that the shows connection with slavery would turn people off. When I was making it, I thought, I dont want it to be terrible, she said.
Far from terrible, the series and its success (the first episode has had more than 660,000 views) catapulted Dungey onto Salon.coms list of 10 talented black women SNL could hire.
Now, shes part of a budding revolution. Fed up with not finding accurate or nuanced representations of themselves in television or film, many black women have found a home on YouTube, creating series and parodies that address serious issues surrounding race and gender.
Issa Rae, the creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and Franchesca Ramsey, the creator of Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls, were among the first to see their videos go viral.
These arent just one-offs filmed in someones basement, either. Theyre characterized by high production values and thoughtful scripts. Most have a writer, director and producer. Jordan Black, the director of Ask a Slave, is a former Saturday Night Live writer and was a member of the Groundlings improv company.
And Dungey and her sketch comedy partner, Amani Starnes, are working on a new series called Amazie, which is set to debut next month.
Theres a message behind Ask a Slave that Dungey addressed in a video she made with Starnes after seeing the movie 12 Years a Slave.
I am not talking about slavery in my show, Dungey said. Im talking about modern racism, and Im talking about modern ignorance. Youre an irresponsible person if you dont know American history, because its connected to politics. Its connected to racism that still exists. Its connected to everything.
As for Starnes, her series United Colors of Amani follows her trials as a biracial actress. All episodes are based on Starness life experiences, although some are composites.
Theres a little bit of Azie in my Web series, and theres a little bit of me in hers, Starnes said.
Sometimes, United Colors of Amani can seem like a 2013 continuation of Hollywood Shuffle. In one audition for a toothpaste commercial, Starnes encounters a particularly color-struck casting director who says, Black girls and redheads – thats what it takes to sell facial cream. She swears this happened.
Starnes started acting in Kansas City, Mo., when she was 10. She played Dot in a Coterie Theatre adaptation of The Wizard of Oz that explored L. Frank Baums classic tale through the eyes of a street urchin who breaks into his house. In the play, Baum is putting the finishing touches on The Wizard of Oz, and he and Dot act it out together.
Then the reviews came out. I remember being devastated because they were like, Why would they cast a little black girl in this role? It doesnt make any sense, Starnes said. I was the youngest kid theyd ever cast for anything, and I felt so accomplished and special, and that was the first time that even remotely dawned on me.