In what appears to be a successful format for web series, Ask A Slave is a show that has been raking in the views with the simple concept; taking the dumb (real) things people say and bringing them to a wider audience so we can cover our faces in collective shame.
Much like how Below The Line shines a light at the mistreatment of those in the lower levels of the entertainment business, and Breaking and Entering showcases the real stories of Hollywood interns to the point where it’s been described as the ‘anti-Entourage’, Ask A Slave gets it’s material from the questions asked of actress and star, Azie Dungey, when she worked in-character as a slave at Mount Vernon (historical home of George and Martha Washington). The upshot being that by virtue of clever scripting and damning facial expressions, Dungey’s comebacks can be pre-prepared zingers.
In Ask A Slave, Dungey remains in character as the fictional ‘Lizzie Mae’, a character based on an amalgamation of several real and typical slaves that lived during the late 18th Century. Lizzie is slave to Martha Washington and willing to respond to (often misguided) enquiries. At first the show is simply that, a question and answer session whereby all parties talk directly to the camera: from various outside locations for the (modern) inquirers and inside a minimally dressed set for (period) ‘Lizzie’.
Her replies range from sarcasm to bemusement in her (mostly) eloquent responses to those who seem to rather misunderstand what the concept of ‘slavery’ actual entails (one well-meaning person is very keen to know where Lizzie spends her vacations!). The ‘true story’ part certainly makes these (often borderline racist) comments all the more funny, especially as Dungey gets to cut them down with withering aplomb.
Dungey smartly mixes up the formula a little as the show progresses, introducing other in-period characters and fleshing out the show beyond simply Q&A. Mr Tobius Leah, abolitionist, makes an appearance in episode 2, and his strong morals combated with his inherent racism is extremely funny to behold. We later meet ‘Emma, The Runaway’ and Lizzie’s 9 year old son (‘he’s fully grown!’). These detractions build on the solid in-character setting, all anchored by Dungey’s stonking performance as a woman who has developed the skill of “cutting down to size with polite sass” into an art form.
The first season lasted only 6 episodes of around 4 minutes apiece, with the last playing on 29th September 2013. But fear not as a mere 5 weeks later season two has returned to clean out the chamber pots, with the latest episode going live on November 11th.
Dungey is an actress who describes herself as ‘a time-travelling black girl’ due to playing almost every historical black girl part there is. She created and wrote the series on her experiences partly because the comedy was there for the taking, but partly due to shine a light on some attitudes that still don’t appear to have changed much. On the Ask A Slave website, she states of her experience working at Mount Vernon:-
“I was playing a slave. Every day, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.
So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.”
With a laugh out loud performance from Dungey, a biting script, clever set-up, and intelligent approach at drawing attention to complacency in racial tensions, Ask A Slave is a fantastic show. However, it is telling that the one time the humour falls a little flat is when Dungey essentially breaks character to launch into a foul mouthed (and censored) tirade against the stupidity of the question at hand (Episode 3 – ‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’). As the comedy from the show derives from Lizzie’s tongue in cheek acerbic manners, such an outburst breaks the audience’s sense of place somewhat. Thankfully this one lapse into a modern attitude-laden reaction is a single occurrence.
Season 1 had a huge and near instant level of success, drawing in tens of thousands of subscribers, and hundreds of thousands of views. This was reportedly kickstarted thanks to a 42k liked Jezebel article (which can’t have hurt), but success can also can be attributed to a large amount social media sharing, made easier by Ask A Slave’s punchy title and quick fix laughs.
Despite that, Dungey has politely asked for donations to help fund season two and so it’s possible that there isn’t enough money to fund a full run of another 5 episodes.
Ask A Slave takes a simple concept (that some others have made complicated), added embellishment where necessary to support the comedy, and then relied on a small cast of solid performers to bring that vision to the screen; proving in the process that if the material is strong enough then there is no need to dress it up in Sunday Best now, is there?