“Oh man,” Denée Benton said, facing a metal shop grate. “Everything really is closed.”
This was on a frosty Tuesday morning in early January and Ms. Benton, a Tony-nominated actress who stars in the HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” had come to Tompkins Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn for some shopping. You can also find vintage clothing, crystals, herbs and candles on the list.
Blame Omicron, cold, or post-holiday hangover. But nearly every shop in Tompkins was closed.
“I don’t blame them,” Ms. Benton said, as she peered into the darkened windows of Ancient Blends Apothe’Care. “I love Black people resting. But I did want to buy some candles.”
Ms. Benton, a 30-year-old Carnegie Mellon University graduate, first moved to New York City in 2015. She found an apartment in the neighbourhood. “I loved it,” she said. But when Broadway beckoned — first “The Book of Mormon,” then “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” then “Hamilton” — she moved to Manhattan.
During the pandemic, she read about Building Black Bed-Stuy street market. She visited them, fell in love with the area all over again, and she and Carl Lundstedt, her husband, bought an apartment there.
Despite being behind closed doors, she seemed determined and happy to enjoy the day. “People are like, ‘What are your hobbies?’ I’m like, ‘I like to sit in the sun and walk slowly and just get something cute to sip on.’” She had dressed against the cold comfortably, in a camel coat, a white turtleneck, cuffed jeans, white high-top sneakers and a black bucket hat that read, “Black Is Beautiful.” Amethyst and black tourmaline pendants hung from her neck, gold hoops from her ears. Each bright eye was encircled with gold shadow.
Sincerely Tommy, one of the few shops open, was where she looked for something cute to sip. She stopped to admire a skirt made out of imitation fawn skin, as well as a few more bucket caps. She inquired about the beetroot coffee latte at the coffee bar behind her. She asked about a lily shoot as the bar ran out of beetroot powder. She wasn’t in the mood for CBD. She settled on a lion’s mane oat chai latte. The barista assured her that the drink would improve cognitive function.
“Focus,” he said. “Increased awareness and alertness.” That sounded good to Ms. Benton.
Back on the street, she paused and stared into the windows of a few more closed stores — Peace & Riot, Make Manifest BK — drinking her latte and spilling a few glugs onto her sleeve. (Awareness hadn’t kicked in immediately.) She soaked up the spill and walked past Byas & Leon, a closed shop. “Great vintage shop,” she said wistfully.
As she made her way, unhurriedly, toward the Herbert Von King Park — “I’m a mosey-er,” she said — she seemed entirely at ease, in marked contrast to Peggy Scott, the character she plays on “The Gilded Age.” As a Black secretary in the white household of Agnes van Rhijn (played by Christine Baranski), Peggy is set apart by race. And at home with her wealthy parents, Dorothy and Arthur Scott (Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson), Peggy’s writerly ambitions create further distance.
Ms. Benton immediately responded to the character as a Black artist who has frequently navigated white spaces. “I just felt an immediate reflection of myself in the tightrope that she walks and all of her intersecting identities,” she said. “The tightrope hasn’t changed that much.” She also saw something inspiring about Peggy. “She’s attempting to be an arbiter of her own freedom,” Ms. Benton said.
In an early episode, Peggy tells her friend Marian: “For a New Yorker, anything is possible.” Ms. Benton, who modeled her character on 19th-century Black writers like Julia C. Collins and Ida B. Wells believes it. The question she has set herself for the year: “What happens if I don’t need to explain myself to anyone in order to be myself?”
Ms. Benton entered the park and chose a bench, pointing her face towards the sun. In the early years of her career, she said she hadn’t always known how to replenish herself from the physical and emotional demands of acting. She has since learned the secrets of success…