So Many Questions: Actress Shalita Grant hopes PBS’ ‘Mercy Street’ raises important issues
PBS might be billing its upcoming Civil War miniseries, “Mercy Street,” as a medical drama, but for Shalita Grant (“NCIS: New Orleans,” “Invisible”), who plays recently freed slave Aurelia Johnson, that summation barely scratches the surface.
Set in Alexandria, Va., the show follows the lives of two volunteer nurses, New England abolitionist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “The Returned”) and Confederate supporter Emma Green (Hannah James, “Winding Road”). Both are tasked with being an instrument of mercy and order during a time when pain and chaos reign supreme.
For Grant, it was an opportunity to embrace a character who takes her destiny in her hands. Aurelia Johnson sets herself free and escapes farther north.
“Mercy Street” premieres Jan. 17.
Question: We see what your character is forced to do in exchange for the promise of freedom. Is it good to talk about the exploitation that was rampant at that time?
Answer: I think that period of the Civil War and the period after, of Reconstruction, is probably the least in mind at school. When you go to college, African-American studies are often seen as electives, so the information is not widely known and that’s a problem, because that period has influenced where we are today. And the lack of understanding of that period often contributes to racial illiteracy at large.
So, while the producers and creators have marketed the show as a medical drama, which was something I didn’t know when I signed on, it’s really difficult to mine anything in that period and not coincidentally talk about the exploitation of black people.
Q: It seems as though we still operate under the impression that the end of the war meant an end to slavery. But wasn’t it really just the beginning?
A: It was. Absolutely. Even the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t a complete end to slavery. There were still people who were enslaved up until they were 21. There were all these loopholes in keeping people enslaved.
The idea that black men are roving rapists and are sexually uncontrolled and uncontrollable, that was a stereotype promoted during the period of Reconstruction to keep black men enslaved, indentured servants, to keep them heavily policed. Because the idea was, “Oh, you let these black men free, and they’re going to rape our white women.” … There were all of these PR campaigns against black people, and it’s so much part of our culture and our media, you don’t think about it.
Q: Isn’t it right that the freed slaves didn’t exactly find welcoming arms — from fellow slaves or citizens of the South or North?
A: I’m from Virginia, which was the capital of the Confederacy. And when I was in elementary school, I remember coloring in pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with headings of “Gentlemen of the South.” It’s one of, I think, three states that celebrates Confederacy History Month. So, the state itself is steeped heavily in the celebration of Confederacy with phrases like “The Lost Cause” that are holdovers from that actual period.
I grew up with the Confederate side of the Civil War, and when I went to Julliard, one year they offered “Slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction,” and that was my education on all parts — not just the Confederate side of things.
Q: What happens when our conscious becomes a luxury we can no longer afford?
A: It’s the failure of when good people do nothing. When we say things like, “I don’t have a prejudice bone in my body,” I think, “Wow, you know yourself so little.” … In truth, we all are really bred to be discriminatory. You’re not helping the problem, you’re turning a blind eye.
Q: The series tagline is “Between war and peace there is hope.” Do you agree?
A: I don’t know. I really don’t. That’s so difficult and it’s a minefield. It oversimplifies so much. Because again, that war, and what we have done with it, PR-wise, “The end of racism came with the end of slavery.” And there are people’s bodies that belie that (idea).
Kate Benz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.