I have to start this post with a sincere apology to fans of The Gilded Age character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) as I am too. I developed a theory about the evils of Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) where sweet Peggy seems – from watching the episode’s promo – to be involved. If it weren’t for the importance of the entry of diversity into the universe of Julian Fellowes, who is spectrally bringing up the issues of structural racism, prejudice, and societal problems that are still relevant, it might even be interesting that Peggy had a dark and unknown side, but it will not be the case. It’s very unlikely. As one person posted, she could be suffering at the hands of Tom Raikes as well, and for blackmail be participating in the scam, which seems more plausible to me. We’ll probably find out in today’s episode.
Through Peggy’s narrative, The Gilded Age is addressing wrong stereotypes perpetuated in previous films and series and showing an elite class of the 19th century, formed by successful black people and that the series’ creative team worked to report with care and dignity, led by for the historical consultancy of Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Peggy’s family has a pharmacist father and owns his own business, her mother is a classical pianist, and Peggy herself is a girl educated at a private school. She is better off – technically – than Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson). Brooklyn, in that period, was a city of its own, not one of the five boroughs that make up New York today, and that’s where they were based.
To play Peggy, the production brought in one of the most respected actresses on Broadway today, Denée Benton, who starred in The Book of Mormon, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 and Hamilton, among other shows. A native of Florida, Denée studied in Pennsylvania and started the musical circuit until she reached Broadway, already with a Tony nomination for Best Actress. As Peggy, Denée is gaining worldwide recognition.
The actress was always concerned about how Peggy would be presented and perceived, as she is a more complex character than she presents herself, but she did not want to fall into typical structural traps. For example, Peggy is not a maid in the Van Rhijn household. She is a private secretary because she is better prepared than the rest of the team. In the original, Peggy would pose as Marian’s servant in order to stay in the house, but Denée didn’t accept the proposal, and the change was made.
“What was really exciting about this role was that I immediately felt an affinity with Peggy. It’s so rare for me to get a role where I feel such a specific relationship to her identity praxis, not just as a black woman, but as a black woman brought up with her level of education – with working professional parents and a high school level – high specific -class, black woman’s story, which is very much my story,” she said in an interview with Glamour. “It wasn’t the ‘I was the first generation of this story. My parents were the first generation out of Jim Crow laws, and then Peggy’s parents were the first generation out of slavery, and what they did with that opportunity. And me being the first generation of that. It’s not really a perspective on black life that the mainstream seems to be very interested in. I spent much of my upbringing feeling isolated within this story. Seeing that I actually come from a very long lineage of Peggy Scotts was really healing for me and emotional and felt like a sense of belonging,” she explained.
The actress also elaborated on how she wants us to see Peggy Scott. “I feel like I’m giving the gift of giving life to these ancestors who were largely pushed to the margins. To come to see that there have been black people at all levels of society for all times. Anything that tells us we weren’t moving through all the spaces is just an illusion of the white supremacy and white imagination that has controlled the narrative for so long,” she said. “I felt really dedicated to that kind of dignity and to that responsibility.”
Another change defended by the team of historians that Denée celebrates was the one that made it possible for more black actors to join the cast: to show the story of the newspaper The New York Globe, for which Peggy has written, and the entry of T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), who seems to have romantic potential with Peggy. Will it be? First, we have to discover the fate of Elias Finn, the boyfriend that the writer’s parents didn’t approve of and who provided her with the necessary experience to save Marian from an awkward situation with Raikes. The friendship of the two young women also had adaptations to reflect a more attuned and balanced relationship between a white young woman and a black young woman, going through similar problems.
“I’ve also championed many of the nuances that appear in Peggy and Marian’s relationship. I wanted to make sure that if we were going to build a friendship between these two women, we didn’t build a fantasy and that we could see Marian’s white frailty. We have to see Peggy set these boundaries, how does a black and white woman really build confidence in this moment and in 2022?” the actress spoke in the same interview. “What are these frictions that go from being a colleague to a friendship and what security needs to be established? Really advocating that Marian is not just a white heroine and Peggy is not a symbol or a black magician or any of the tropes, and letting Marian fall flat on her face and see how they bounce back from that.”
So the promo for today’s episode may have been mean. Peggy’s mystery continues, but Denée’s talent will present us with an interesting and extremely relevant character to the plot. Can not wait!