Don Draper's Secretary Takes a Hiatus from Madison Avenue
It may be one of the most awkward, racially-fraught hugs ever captured on television.
In the episode called “The Flood” on season six of Mad Men, Joan Holloway—the office’s buxom ice queen—zeroes in on the company’s first black employee, secretary Dawn Chambers, to offer condolences about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Joan (the masterful Christina Hendricks) clasps her fingers around Dawn’s shoulders and bows her head in a formal display of solidarity, but it is Dawn’s wide-eyed expression of surprise and embarrassment that captures the distance between Joan’s intention and Dawn’s reality. It’s classic Mad Men—a subtle, office-politic moment that tackles the tumult of the 1960s.
Actor Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn, cracks her 200-watt smile when I bring up the moment. “I didn’t know how people would react to that.” But she says fans began tweeting screen shots and GIFS to her before she had even seen the episode. “I was dying,” she laughs.
Parris’ earnest and heart-breakingly lonely (did she ever get a date to that wedding?!) portrayal of Dawn on Mad Men made her a crucial cast member of the show’s sixth season for breaking the color barrier at Sterling Draper Price Cooper. And the South Carolina-raised, Julliard-trained actor is poised to generate a lot more buzz. She explores race-relations again in the whip-smart satire Dear White People—which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—about four black students at a prominently white Ivy League school, and the race riot that breaks out around a popular “black-themed” party thrown by white students.
Before Dawn, we’d seen black characters on Mad Men in various bit parts, from one-scene girlfriends to prostitutes to a very-grandmotherly burglar, to Carla, the Draper’s nanny who Betty fired in a fit of rage. For most of the years of watching the show, there was a sense of racial apologism about it—a reluctant acceptance of the lack of diversity because the writing and art direction were so damned good. Bloggers and TV critics alike have attacked Weiner for not taking the same care with diversity issues that he has with homosexual or women’s issues. When Gayle King asked Matthew Weiner point-blank on Charlie Rose last year if there will be more black characters, Weiner said it straight up: “Black people still do not have representation on Madison Avenue,”—going on to add that the show isn’t about how we wish things were, but the reality of the time.
“I think the few times you do get to see what Dawn is going through, it’s in amazing juxtaposition to the lives of the other people in the office,” Parris says. “It’s like our world now, how one situation doesn’t affect one group at all, but is completely traumatic to another.”
Parris had been looking to do a period piece when an audition for Mad Men presented itself. The initial audition was just for a day player—due to Weiner’s strict secrecy protocols on set—but Parris was thrilled to keep coming back and to develop Dawn.
“She’s just trying to keep her head down and not make a stir,” Parris says about Don Draper’s newest secretary.
Parris’ own grandmother was a secretary in an all-white office in the 1960s. When Parris asked for details of what that experience was like, she found that her grandmother echoed Dawn’s sentiment and work ethic. “She was like, ‘Why are you asking me these things? It’s not that serious. I did my job and went home.’ ”
For Parris, acting is a job she’s been preparing for over many years. She got started as a performer through school beauty pageants when she was still in elementary school—winning her first one in third grade—but soon wanted to move past waving and smiling. That led to drama club, and then, for the last two years of high school, she was admitted to the prestigious residential South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, which models itself after Julliard’s conservatory. It wasn’t a huge step, therefore, to move to New York and begin at Julliard after she graduated.
Between these two programs, Parris cut her acting teeth playing a diverse array of characters from works by Chekov to Shakespeare to August Wilson. “In school, you do colorblind casting,” Parris says. “I learned that acting is about the human condition. The ultimate goal is to strip yourself down and fill that space back up with this other person’s life experience—no matter how different that experience is from your own.”
At the end of her time at Julliard, Parris starred as Celimene from Moliere’s The Misanthrope—a 17th century French aristocratic debutante. Not someone she had much in common with, but still, Parris says: “I had so much fun with her! She switched her demeanor in an instant—totally manipulative. We did traditional silhouettes with modern accents—a big bouffant dress, but in hot pink plaid and an afro mohawk!”
The transition from school to the real world was a harsh one, as the univeralism of acting theory and color-blind casting—the “everybody can be everybody” attitude—dries up quickly.
“There are just not a lot of things that you are able to go out for,” Parris says, deadpan, “because they are going… not black.”
But Parris says she considers carefully what kind of choices she makes, even at this early point in her career, when there is pressure to be seen and to make a living. It’s not positive images of black people that we need, Parris tells me, but complex ones.
“If it is somebody going through some shit and they are a totally jacked up character—that’s okay,” she says emphatically. “I want a human. I want a human story to be told.”
Parris doesn’t just limit this to black stories. She says she hears the same complaints from Asian American friends in the business. She’s especially proud of her work with director J.P. Chan, whose 2010 short Empire Corner—about the romantic tension between a black woman and a Chinese food delivery man who gets brutally attacked in her neighborhood—toured festivals. His new feature A Picture of You (2013) features a diverse cast—Asian American, black, and white.
“I am really excited about [A Picture of You] because it is people of color, having a life, having real emotions. There was no karate in it, there was no fried chicken—it was people living a life and being human,” Parris says.
In Dear White People, Parris plays Colandrea Conners—A.K.A. CoCo—a black girl from Chicago who tries to get ahead at the predominantly white Manchester University by assimilating (meaning blue contacts, a weave, and a dismissal of others students’ black activism).
“CoCo is definitely a young lady that knows what she wants in life,” Parris says. “She is smart and savvy. Despite a short temper, blinding ambition, and her need to show everyone just how confident she is—I think CoCo ultimately wants to fit in.”
CoCo’s ambition—she has a shot to star in a reality show—leads her to making some unseemly alliances, and ultimately shows a great deal of complexity around race issues.
Parris says she is inspired by writer-director Justin Simien, who spent more than seven years bringing Dear White People to the screen, and his creative vision for the project. “He really has something to say.”
“I’ve never lived in an all-black world,” Simien says about the film, “and found I was constantly confronted with others’ almost-instant expectations and assumptions about me based on my race. This sort of toggling between white and black worlds, and modulating my ‘blackness’ to fit in, get ahead, make friends, etc., was an experience I felt needed to be commented on in film.”
Along with CoCo’s professional and identity struggle, the film features Samantha (Tessa Thompson)—a mixed-race media studies major with radical politics; Troy (Brandon P. Bell), son of the university’s dean with a white girlfriend; and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a nerdy gay kid with an incredibly unruly afro. Simien’s script works as an homage to great black college films of the 1980s and 90s—like School Daze and Higher Learning—with the satire of PCU thrown in. Along with addressing race relations on campus and in America, the film tackles inter-racial romance, homophobia, exceptionalism, and technology obsession—making possibly the sharpest college movie thus far of the new millennium.
On Dear White People’s Indiegogo campaign page, it reads: “Believe it or not there was a time when ‘Black Art-House’ was a thing.”
Simien explains: “I think there’s a lot more to the Black experience (and therefore the human experience) than what’s coming down the pike. But artists have to be willing to say something different.”
Simien says that Parris is “the real deal.”
“One of my favorite things to do in the cutting room is to watch her when she’s not the focus of the shot. Whether she’s in the background of a scene or in a full close-up, she’s always 100 percent present and in the moment. Working with her was a profound experience,” Simien says. “She effortlessly melted into this character that is so different from who she really is in so many ways.”
Unlike CoCo, Parris doesn’t rock a weave anymore, and talks passionately about her journey to becoming a “natural girl”—no longer using chemicals to straighten her curls. She realizes now how much it affected her growing up not seeing images of dark-skinned women with untreated hair.
“It wasn’t just changing my hairstyle for me. It was letting go of a lot of stigmas that I didn’t even realize I held,” Parris says. “It’s an emotional and spiritual journey, of letting go of these images that you are told are the standard of beauty and starting to accept who we are and how god made us—and standing and living in that beauty.”
For Parris, who grew up with Halle Berry and Angela Bassett as her role models, artists—like Simien—who are making films on their own terms are part of the solution to the lack of images of women who look like her in the media.
“It’s people like Justin and JP, and Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, Lena Waithe, Ben Jones,” Parris lists, “who are saying: ‘We’re going to do it ourselves.’ ”
Meanwhile, Parris is enigmatic about the future for Dawn’s character in Mad Men, since the last season ended with Don Draper on a leave of absence from the company. “Who knows if she’ll even be back,” she says slyly. But the impression she made on audiences is a little too deep for us to forget. It’s unlikely that Dawn or Parris will be disappearing from view anytime soon.
Photos by Evan Lane
Styling by Jenna Enns
Hair by Felicia Leatherwood
Makeup by Starlynn Burden
Dig what you’re reading? Awesome! Subscribe to our semiannual print magazine
dedicated to the filmmakers who don’t think independent cinema
is about white people eating cereal in bed.