Denée Benton Is Proud of Her Southern Lineage

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Peggy Scott, the writer Denée Benton plays in HBO’s The Gilded Age, has been through it. Against her mother’s protestations in season two, she makes her way from Brooklyn all the way down to Tuskegee, Alabama, and once there, she quickly learns that her life has been more insular than she initially thought. “There’s a beauty when Peggy gets to go to Tuskegee and just see the other students there who have their own dreams and their lives and one wants to open a farm or restaurant once getting married,” Benton tells the Cut.

The American South is foreign to Peggy, but for Benton, now a New Yorker like her character, it is the place she calls home. “There’s so many jokes about Peggy going South, but I grew up in the South and I’m really proud to be from the South, even with the terrors that my family line has survived on that land,” she says. “My grandmothers, my brother, my aunties, my uncles, so many people have real connection with the earth and really know how to tend to the land and feed each other and eat ourselves. My body and my voice and my skin and my hair are never happier than when I’m close to the equator and the Atlantic in that way.”

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from?

When I need to elevate my taste game, I find an Aquarius. There’s always some Aquarius in my orbit who has amazing taste. I feel like certain signs have a good eye for the vibe. Honestly, I love the Cut. I follow Zeba Blay’s mood boards on Instagram, which I love. It just sort of feels like the curated Black femme vision board of my dreams. I find that I go down different rabbit holes from all the tags.

I’m obsessed with How to Survive the End of the World, this podcast by adrienne maree and Autumn Brown. I’ve listened to it for five or six years now, and it’s just been my North Star of internal self-reclamation, especially because of what we’ve all had to survive as Black femmes. It’s not necessarily pop culture, but it’s like spirit culture, liberation culture. That’s where I’ve been getting my reading list for the last few years.

Which celebrities would you invite to a dinner party (dead or alive)?

Megan Thee Stallion is definitely on the list. Eartha Kitt is on the list. It would be delightful to just hear her speak for a whole evening. God, there’s so many people. Can we just start with those two?

What is your pre-performing ritual? 

I’m really into tapping these days. It’s a nervous-system-soothing kind of therapy that you can just do on your own and kind of go in a corner and tap yourself to calmness. I also usually pray. If I’m nervous, my Aquarius childhood best friend has been getting my stressed-out texts for 20 years. That’s the trifecta. I have this little prayer I’ve said to myself since I was performing in middle-school plays and it still grounds me.

Can you tell me more about the prayer? 

It’s about centering and shining light, and decentering yourself and centering yourself as the vessel for that moment. Really just treating what comes through you as a gift that is yours, but it’s bigger than you in a way. It feels like it helps me show up.

What is something you’ll never, ever watch, no matter what?

Anything about the apocalypse. I grew up way too deep in the church, and so the Book of Revelation has traumatized me like many children of America. You know what? If the zombies come, you can just take me first. I’m not going to fight you. I’m probably not going to run that far because I’m going to get tired and I’ll just see what’s on the other side of all this.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?

I just did a film, Genie, with the writer Richard Curtis. He and his wife have the most amazing stories. I won’t name names, but they told a story about being at a very famous castle and very famous dinner guests that got into a slap and brawl over a woman. It all just sounded delicious and amazing. And I’m so curious. It made me feel like there’s a level of elite party that maybe I never need to see, but I’m thankful to get to hear about what happens there.

Favorite game to play?

I grew up in a very classic Jenga/Uno household, so I can really go long for a good game of Jenga. The tension builds so beautifully.

What music do you listen to when you’re alone?

This has been a year of huge change in my personal life. One of those Saturn returns where it’s like “Universe, are you trying to destroy me? Are you trying to set me free?” I’m trusting it was the latter. I feel like there’ve been these women that have been the soundtrack to my audacity — the audacity that I’ve needed to make it through this season.

Doechii is on the list. Flo Milli is on the list. I’ve been going back to Trina, she’s on the list. Rico Nasty’s on the list. They have really been getting me through. Sometimes I have to leave my house. I’m crying. I don’t feel like it, but then you put on a bad bitch and you’re like, “Okay, we’re going to ride this together. I’m going to walk down the street and we’re going to get it done.”

Name a book you couldn’t put down?

Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone series. I talk about it all the time because I’m so obsessed. She just announced that the third book is coming out in the summer. It is like it’s a young-adult novel series. It’s giving Lord of the Rings, but for West African lore. There’s a Black teenager, the magic and her people have been suppressed by the current monarchy of that time — but she starts to awaken it and the people. They use it to fight for their liberation. It’s just so inspiring and amazing. The books are being turned into movies, and I can’t wait. I just want to hold the staff in the back of one of them. I’m just so thrilled by it. Everyone should read the series.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Probably something from my grandmother. I feel like it was something along the lines of: At the end of the day, your body is the only thing that carries you, and so you have to respect your needs, even if it’s inconvenient for other people, which oftentimes those who are giving me that advice didn’t have the privilege to really respect their bodies’ needs because of how much was demanded of them. So it’s really healing to hear that advice to not treat myself like the mule that society has told us we are, you know, but to really honor my body’s needs.

What’s the one thing you recommend for someone who needs some wisdom, advice, or guidance when it comes to their love life?

Child. Go do some trauma therapy and learn about your attachment styles and get a sense of who you are, because you have no clue what patterns you’re re-creating without knowing. I’m such a therapy, mental-health person. I’m here for all of it. I don’t believe that you can’t be loved if you don’t love yourself. I think we love and heal each other in community all the time.

Do you drive in the city or are you more of a subway person? 

All of the above. I can drive. I have driven in the city. I’ve got really sensitive senses, so when I take the subway, I’m like the old lady with my essential oils in my purse, and I’m putting eucalyptus in my mask and I’m trying to navigate the smells and the sounds and the lights.

Favorite piece of art you own?

There was this art piece growing up in my house called Saturday Evening in the Kitchen, and it’s from Arthur Dawson. He’s a famous painter who paints these beautiful Black family vignettes from different time periods. He was born in Leesburg, Florida, which is where my father was born and he had made some art based on my parents over the years. When I moved into this apartment, my parents gifted me a print of it.

In the piece, there’s a girl getting her hair pressed out before church — with the mom, with grandma at the stove and there’s a baby and Dad’s eating — and it’s just this multigenerational home. It really is what Saturday evening was like before you get ready for church on Sunday. It feels like it captures the sense memory for me even though this picture probably takes place 50 years before I was coming up. But that tradition was still there.

What would your last meal be?

It would be a tie between Sugarfish or my mom’s brown meat roast with some yams and green beans and macaroni and rice and gravy and cornbread. I would just take both. And then I’d have to have a potato pie, too. It would have to be a feast.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Denée Benton Is Proud of Her Southern Lineage