It’s always cheering when a new web series finds an audience quickly, especially one that spreads entirely thanks to its originality and wit.
Ask A Slave, directed by Jordan Black, is based on actor Azie Mira Dungey’s experiences portraying a “living history” character at Mount Vernon, where tourists would ask her questions about slave life during colonial times.
Some of these questions bordered on the ignorant or bizarre — which, as adapted by Dungey, make great comedic fodder while at the same time relaying truths about the reality of slavery during colonial times.
The YouTube channel, which premiered last week, currently has over 700,000 views and over 22,000 subscribers — an impressive feat for a brand new series from new players in the web video scene.
Like most things that spread fast, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact catalyst — Dungey, in a phone interview, pointed to Jezebel’s coverage of the show as the show’s first high-profile coverage, though social also played a major role. (Anecdotally, I can say that I saw the show reposted several times on Facebook early in its life online.)
One key element may be the choice to release two episodes at once, the second featuring a guest appearance by Laird Macintosh as a period-accurate abolitionist: “It shows that the show is more than just talking heads — we just wanted to give them a taste of where the show can go,” Black said via phone.
But what else helped with the show’s success? Black pointed to the subject matter.
“Just the word ‘slave’ is such a charged word that having it in the title sparked people’s curiosity,” he said. “I do a lot of comedy that deals with racial and social commentary — if you do it in a light-hearted way where people can laugh at it and themselves, it gives people a free pass to laugh about it.”
“Most people don’t know how to talk about this,” Dungey added. “There’s a lot of anger and defensiveness. But with this, it’s not alienating anyone, it makes everyone feel like they’re in on the joke, so then they can receive the lesson behind the comedy.”
Something Dungey didn’t see coming when creating the show was the reaction from educators — she’s received messages from grade school teachers to a professor at Yale, all saying that they’re including Ask A Slave in their curriculums. An 8th grade class has even emailed her a question.
“I never thought it would be added to American classrooms,” she said. “But I’m very excited that it’s being talked about on an intellectual level.”
In the days since the show’s premiere, Dungey has been approached by producers and production companies, though it was too early to discuss any specifics regarding those deals. Notably, though, she has been approached about writing a book by “a few different places.”
In the meantime, what’s next for Ask A Slave? It’s still up in the air, but for right now there are four more episodes, which will roll out on a weekly basis going forward. And then? “We definitely have to make more,” Dungey said.