Denée Benton is making space for Black characters we haven’t seen before

From Hamilton to The Gilded Age, the actress is portraying Black women from the 1800s with nuance that such characters don’t usually get.

Jenny Anderson
ByBrittany Luse

As a princess, actress Denée Benton cuts a believable figure. With her well-honed chops, flashbulb smile, and balletic gait, it’s no surprise that Benton has built a remarkable career playing the regal ingenue in some of Broadway’s biggest period musicals — parts not necessarily written for Black actresses. But as she garners praise for yet another period role, this time as shrewd writer Peggy Scott on HBO’s The Gilded Age, even Benton’s own mother is wondering if something more cosmic than her acting prowess might be at play.

“She was like, ‘Girl, I don't know, there must be an ancestor trying to speak through you or something that you keep finding yourself in the 1800s,’” Benton laughs. “... It's a mystery to me, too. But it's special because it feels like I'm getting to be a part of carving a path in a space that Black women have been rarely seen in.”

That space is the ever-changing New York City of 1882, where The Gilded Age is set. The show, which was renewed for a second season three weeks after its premiere, is the latest from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. In line with Fellowes’s previous work, it follows the class and economic tug-of-war between old money New Yorkers, their new money robber baron neighbors, and the domestic staff whose labor buoys it all. It’s the stuff of appointment viewing, replete with the restrictive mores, forbidden love, and simmering scandal that are well-trodden territory for white characters in period pieces. But it’s Peggy, a young Black secretary and aspiring journalist from a well-heeled family of Brooklyn strivers, who stands out.

Anchored by Benton’s authoritative performance, Peggy is something of a unicorn: the rare, three-dimensional Black character from the era between Emancipation and the Harlem Renaissance. Through Peggy, Gilded Age viewers get a glimpse at the post-Reconstruction life more commonly depicted in history books like Carla L. Peterson’s Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in New York City, or novels like Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge.

Peggy is formally educated and headstrong, rebelling against her parents’ wishes for her to join the family drugstore business. Instead, she writes searing editorials for a Black-owned newspaper. She’s a thoroughly modern character who has both the perfect penmanship she needs as personal secretary to Upper East Side fixture Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and the suggestion of a secret love affair in her past. But Peggy and her parents, Dorothy (Audra McDonald) and Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), also live with the lingering specter of slavery, despite what their well-appointed Brooklyn brownstone may suggest.

It’s that tension between Peggy’s tenacity, her parents’ sacrifice, and the limitations imposed by white supremacy where Benton sees a bit of herself. Though Benton’s “Huxtable generation” parents have supported her acting career from day one, shuttling her back and forth to lessons and rehearsals in central Florida, where she grew up, she was always hyper-aware of their hefty expectations for her future.

“When you are a Black child of first-generation parents — for Peggy it's the first generation out of enslavement, and for my parents it's the first generation out of Jim Crow — and if they are the first in their families, or a handful in their families to break that wealth gap and become a part of the professional working class of Black people, there is this excellence pressure that comes with [it],” Benton says. “In an attempt to want us to succeed and keep us safe, our parents can hold [us] so tightly that they crush us a little bit. And … being the youngest daughter, the only girl in my Black Christian patriarchal home, I related to that urge to break free and be like, ‘You fought for my freedom. So let me be free and let me express the things that come naturally to me.’”

“I'm getting to be a part of carving a path in a space that Black women have been rarely seen.”

Benton’s urge to perform came early. “I just remember seeing Brandy [and] Whitney [in] Cinderella,” she says. “It would ache, it would hurt inside, I wanted to do it so bad.”

That ache soon developed into an undeniable calling. But self-doubt hung close by, and Benton was initially timid about auditioning for college theater programs. Her hummingbird soprano was more suited to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score than the Jennifer Holliday torch song many theater producers typically expect of Black actresses. “I didn't know if there would be a place for me in the industry,” she says. “I just always felt like I wasn't quite the ‘right kind’ of Black girl, all of that internalized stuff.”

And then Benton landed the lead in her high school’s production of Aida, a Broadway musical set in ancient Egypt centered around an Egyptian captain and an enslaved Nubian princess. “It was just one of those breakthrough moments … my voice did things that I didn't think it could do,” Benton says. “And I remember I got the role, and I went to my drama teacher and asked her to give it away.” Her teacher firmly denied the request, securing Benton in the role that would ultimately boost her confidence and nudge her toward her destiny.

She went on to study at Carnegie Mellon’s acting conservatory, ultimately booking a lead role in The Book of Mormon national tour before graduation. Benton is now a seasoned Broadway actress, known for playing Eliza in Hamilton and Natasha in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, the latter of which garnered her a Best Actress in a Musical Tony nomination in 2017. Watching videos of Benton performing as Natasha, arms outstretched and vibrato reaching the cheap seats, the idea of that teenager with imposter syndrome feels like a forgotten melody.

“When I saw the character breakdown for Peggy, it was like connecting to a spiritual ancestor,” remembers Benton. She was delighted by the idea of playing a character who, like herself, knows the necessity and cost of shapeshifting. “The way that she has to astutely navigate these different cultures and spaces, and know how to work it in Agnes's house, and know how to work it in that Black publishing office, and know how to work it at the dinner table with her parents, there is a strategic, astute navigation that is always occurring for Black women in this country.”

Benton was determined to get Peggy right, to properly honor that metaphysical connection. And she started with the audition process. When executive producer Michael Engler asked Benton how she, as a Black woman, responded to Peggy, she took the opportunity to “go in” and share candid feedback about the character as originally envisioned. She thought her honesty would cost her a callback — but ultimately, Peggy was hers.

Benton continued to give pointed feedback on Peggy’s development throughout the early days of The Gilded Age, collaborating with producers to create the most truthful depiction possible. She was also able to lean on Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Ph.D., social historian, scholar, and author of She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriett Tubman, who served as a consulting producer on the show.

Photograph by Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

“Dr. Dunbar and I talked a lot about the revolutionary act of showing Black interiority and Black interior life, and getting to really see Peggy with her mom outside of the male gaze, Peggy with her family outside of the white gaze, Peggy just riding alone, really in her own gaze, and just how rarely we see that in a story or film that's not intentionally, directly centered around Black people,” Benton says.

As Gilded Age production continued, however, Benton felt she needed even more support from the production team to really do Peggy justice. In June 2020, in the thick of America’s so-called racial reckoning, Benton penned a letter to HBO requesting they build out the Gilded Age creative staff with more Black women. "I love giving my feedback, and I would love to just focus on being an actor. So what does it mean to have Black women who are empowered and contracted and paid to do this type of labor, and to have their expertise really valued, not just outside of respectful conversations, but like, 'This is the check you're getting to really show up and shape the show'?" she says.

Benton’s letter made an impact, and dovetailed with efforts within the Gilded Age team to diversify core staff. In summer 2020 seasoned writer Sonja Warfield (The Game, Will & Grace) was added as a writer and co-executive producer. Dr. Dunbar became a co-executive producer as well. And while the Gilded Age team had already hired director Salli Richardson-Whitfield (Winning Time, Queen Sugar, Black-ish) to helm multiple episodes, she was eventually promoted to executive producer.

The experience of having so many Black women writing, directing, and executive producing on a mainstream show is a rarity, and one Benton doesn’t take for granted. For the first time in her career, she says she can fully trust a creative team without constantly looking over her shoulder. “It really feels like a success story of what can happen when, one, you're not afraid to speak, and then when other people also aren't afraid to listen,” she says. “It really takes both of those things, I think, for that to be a really conducive space for positive changes.”

One of the most positive changes of all was expanding Peggy’s world to include a vibrant family life in Brooklyn, specifically with six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald playing Peggy’s mother, Dorothy. McDonald, whose extensive TV credits include hits like Private Practice and The Good Fight, was something of an idol to young Denée; a figure whose existence pushed her to dream grander and whose operatic soprano served as a guide. Benton gushes over this “full-circle moment,” made even sweeter by the fact that McDonald was “so warm and gracious.”

“I think that I could probably reserve an entire chapter of my memoir someday to talk about the experience of getting to have Audra play my mom.”

“I related to that urge to break free and [tell my parents], ‘You fought for my freedom. So let me be free and let me express the things that come naturally to me.’”

It’s clear Benton and Peggy’s coming-of-age stories overlap, to an extent. When considering how she relates to Peggy at this stage in her life — “just freshly 30,” she notes — Benton muses on a moment of realization she thinks every young Black woman has. She calls it the “inner Ms. Celie journey,” likening the character from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to Homer’s Odysseus. The first time she says the phrase, the door to an unexplored hallway of my mind is unlocked. As she goes on, I understand her perfectly.

Benton defines it as an understanding that, “‘I am here, and I can love myself and provide for myself and re-parent myself in the ways that I need to in order to thrive. And that if I wait for everyone else to recognize what I see in me, I'll be waiting for the rest of my life.’"

The “inner Ms. Celie journey” is a kind of growing up. The same grown-womanness that motivated Benton to speak up as a young actress on a big production is reflected in Peggy’s perseverance regarding her writing career, despite the suffocating misogynoir of her times. It’s the strength that stems from knowing how to weave your own safety net. It’s an easeful self-reliance that can only come from within, and Benton and Peggy are enjoying theirs in all their resplendence.