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Denée Benton of ‘The Gilded Age’ Shops in Her Backyard

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. On the list: candles, crystals, herbs, maybe some vintage clothing too. Blame Omicron or the cold or the post-holiday hangover, but nearly every shop up and down 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.”

When Ms. Benton, 30, first moved to New York City in 2015 as a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate, she found an apartment in the neighborhood. “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 the Building Black Bed-Stuy street markets. She visited them and fell in love with the neighborhood all over again, so in love that she and her husband, the actor Carl Lundstedt, found an apartment there and moved back.

Despite the closed doors, she seemed determined 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. Gold shadow ringed each bright eye. At Sincerely, Tommy, one of the few open shops, she went looking for that something cute to sip on, stopping to admire a skirt made from imitation fawn skin and a few more bucket hats. At the coffee bar in front, she asked about the beetroot latte. The bar had run out of beetroot powder, so she asked about a lily shot. She wasn’t in the mood for CBD. She settled on a lion’s mane oat chai latte. The barista told her that the drink would improve cognitive health.

“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.) Sopping up the spill, she passed another closed shop, Byas & Leon. “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 responded to the character right away, as a Black artist who has often 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?”
After entering the park, Ms. Benton chose a bench and angled her face toward 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. But she has since learned what works for her. “Sitting on a park bench in the sun will give me enough energy to last a day in a way that a Pilates class never will,” she said.

In addition to vitamin D, she now also believes in spiritual baths, physical baths, meditation, Yoni steaming, Reiki. “I feel like actors have to do physical therapy for our souls,” she said. “Spiritual work has become vital for me in feeling like I still have something to pour from.” Crystals help, too. “I never thought I’d be the lady with the crystal in my pocket or crystal in my bra,” she said. “Not that I really wear bras anymore.” (When she does wear one, she might tuck in a rose quartz.)

A few minutes of winter sun seemed to do the trick. She thought of one more place to try shopping: Life Wellness Center, a massage and acupuncture spa on Tompkins that also has a plant nursery and store that sells crystals, candles and bath bombs. “It’s my happy place,” she said. “They give the most amazing massages.” As she approached, she saw signs of life. “I see a grate up” she said. The website indicated that the center had opened an hour ago. But despite several knocks and polite shouts, the door was locked and the lights turned off. No one seemed to be in.

 

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