Denée Benton: Tony Award Nominee to HBO Star
By Yulia Lolo
Florida native actress Denée Benton turned 30 on December 31, 2021, and her personal New Year kicked off with a role that will most surely change the entire trajectory of her acting career. Playing Ms. Peggy Scott of The Gilded Age, an ambitious young Black writer who faces off against a challenging literary environment in 1880s New York while working as a secretary for wealthy “old money” lady Agnes van Rhijn – played by the Golden Globe nominee Christine Baranski – has made Benton a breakthrough co-star of Julian Fellowes’ new series for HBO.
Interestingly, The Gilded Age is not Benton’s first role as a young woman from the 1880s. When she moved to New York City in 2015 as a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate, she started performing on Broadway. One of the first stage performances that got her noticed was the role of Natasha Rostova in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a musical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace that played at Broadway’s Imperial Theater in 2016. The role of the young daughter of a Russian count brought Benton her first nomination for a Tony Award in 2017.
In 2018, Benton starred in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Golden Globe-nominated Hamilton on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, a socialite and philanthropist married to American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.
Recalling those stage roles on her Instagram, the Tony Award nominee wrote in 2019: “Towards the end of drama school the questions that we continually got asked by faculty and peers was, ‘what’s your type?’ Meaning, what boxes and stereotypes do you fit into as an actor for casting purposes … Who knew my answer should’ve been 18th/19th-century aristocracy?” Adding hashtags #dontputmeinabox and #representationmatters to her emotional post, Benton continued: “Natasha and Eliza, I will always love you for giving me space to finally feel free and proud in what I bring to the table”.
In a continuation of that statement on her social media, Benton shared one of her observations: “Interestingly enough, when I got cast in Hamilton, I told about a dozen friends/colleagues in the business before it was announced publicly. And for some reason, they’d all blurt out who they assumed I’d be playing before asking me which role I’d been cast as. Only one of them assumed that I’d be playing Eliza. Even based on the roles in my career and the fact that @hamiltonmusical is known for its choice to cast actors of color based on their essences and what they do well instead of their societal boxes, it was still hard for people to assume that someone like me would be cast as the ingénue. Why you ask??? I’ll give you a hint: #colorism (if you don’t know what it is, I encourage you to look it up). Many ceilings still to shatter.”
Soon after the end of Hamilton’s Broadway run in 2019, Benton joined the cast of the poignant film drama Our Friend, co-starring Golden Globe winner Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson., She got her first television credit with the role of Ruby Carter in Hulu’s TV series UnREAL in 2016. In The Gilded Age, Benton’s Peggy Scott aspires to become a writer, and her character is modeled on 19th-century Black writers like Julia C. Collins. Peggy was sent by her parents to the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia to receive an education, and when we first meet her, she is returning home to Brooklyn. Her mother is played by Audra McDonald, whose career spans television, film, and Broadway stage, while her father is played by Tony Award nominee John Douglas Thompson.
In her latest post on Instagram, Benton shares her sentiments on her castmates: “I know they say don’t meet your heroes but @audramcdonald and #johndouglasthompson must be the exception to that rule. You all can guess what Audra’s excellence has meant to me as a Black girl in a musical theater, the fact that I get to play her daughter … whew, that feeling is pretty beyond description. Not only was I met with such generosity and grace by my incredible tv parents, but when I tell you they are CRAFTSMEN?!? Every moment on set with them made me a better actor. The priceless Scott storyline that you see on screen was made possible by some incredible Black women that you don’t see and telling this story with them has been an unimaginable honor.”.
In an early episode Peggy Scott tells her new friend Marian Brook (played by Louisa Jacobson, a graduate of Yale School of Drama who is making her television debut in The Gilded Age): “For a New Yorker, anything is possible”: it seems to be that way for this brilliant Manhattanite who’s currently in production of Larry Powell’s drama Mother’s Milk.
Image: Getty Images