Ato Essandoh is a black actor on the move. After being featured in several supporting roles on the stage, on television and on the silver screen, Essandoh has been cast as the dynamic Dr. Matthew Freeman in the new BBC America scripted period drama Copper. Now in the middle of its season, Copper features Essandoh as a black doctor who was a free man in New York City during the Civil War. Essandoh’s first headlining role is not only a brilliant career move; it is also an opportunity to add breadth and depth to entertainment’s portrayal of African-American history. “[Y]ou don’t get parts like this ever, pretty much. It was such a deep and interesting character and I jumped at the chance to play it,” he told theGrio.
The Ghanaian-American thespian shared with us what it was like to portray a part of black history that is rarely seen — and how Copper speaks to political issues that persist today. The season finale of Copper will air on Sunday, October 21 on BBC America, but there is still time to get enthralled by the show’s engaging themes.
theGrio: How did you get into acting?
It’s a funny story. I was a chemical engineer and I did a play on a dare from my girlfriend at the time. Years later, when I found myself back in New York, I started taking acting classes and I loved it. My Ghanaian parents kind of went crazy. They were like, “why have you left this engineering degree and gone into acting?” It looked so out of the blue for them, but it was something that I’d been vying for after that one play. It was wonderful.
How did Dr. Matthew Freeman became a black medical doctor at that time?
He’s actually self-taught. When I heard that there was going to be a black doctor in the show, because of our country’s history I just didn’t believe it was possible. But I looked it up, and was told by executive producer and creator Tom Fontana that there were actually six black doctors back then. I found out about Dr. James McCune Smith, who was actually the first black doctor in America.
He had to be educated in Glasgow, Scotland because they wouldn’t take him in any universities in America due to racism. He actually lived in New York at the time of our show, but he was in about his sixties by this time. He went to Glasgow to get educated, came back with a medical degree and a pharmacology degree, and opened the first black-owned or run medical establishment, as well as a pharmacy. He treated white people as well as black people.
His story is fascinating. He wrote the introduction to the second autobiography for Frederick Douglass, he was an outspoken abolitionist, he wrote papers. Some of the papers that he wrote about the medical field he couldn’t even present because of racism, so some of his white colleagues had to present those papers for him. It was a great place to anchor my character.
A lot of people don’t know about the history of free blacks. What is the most surprising thing you learned for your character?
It was surprising and tragic. Luckily growing up in the times that have been earned for us now, I can’t imagine growing up in a period where just based on the color of your skin you could get killed. Our story begins around six or seven months after the draft riots, in which about 100 black people were lynched by Irish mobs. To exist in that time where at any point you could just be offed because you looked at somebody in the wrong way — it’s just an awful reminder of where we have come from and what we have gained over the last couple hundred years.
Your character has his work stolen, as Dr. James McCune Smith had his work presented by others. The character of detective Kevin Corcoran gets Dr. Freeman to do his deductive work, but takes the credit. Is that meant to be a statement by the creators of the show about this phenomenon in history?
If not directly, definitely intrinsically. It’s not even a statement, it’s just a reality, which is what I like about the show. They don’t try to sugar coat what happened back then. Imagine, the job that you have or the job that I have – not being able to profit from the fruits of our own hard work and labor. There must be something quite demeaning about that and quite frustrating for lack of a stronger word.
When white people come to your door in the first episode, your wife says, “it’s a white man.” And you get a gun. That’s kind of indicative of the race relations in New York City at the time.
At the same time, does the show draw parallels between the poor Irish and the blacks? Even though they’re at odds, is there some way that their lives are intertwined?
Yeah, inexorably intertwined. I feel that oppression is fueled by the strongest by putting oppressed people at odds with each other. The whole notion of the draft riots was basically – from the Irish side, this is the story I’ve heard – the Irish people who came over here back in those times, they got off the boat. They went to the first desk that basically said, “ok, you’re a U.S. citizen. Now, go to the second desk.” And the second desk is the draft, and they say, “now you’re going to go and fight for the Union Army.”
So these people are coming from their oppressed circumstances and now have to fight for other people who, because of the racism of the country, aren’t even allowed to fight for their own freedom. (They could fight in the Army, but they weren’t drafted because they weren’t considered citizens.)
So there’s this (for lack of a better word) ingenious way to foster hatred, which takes everybody’s eye off the ball as to who’s actually generating all of this hate, which is usually the people at the top with the most money and the most power. They’re getting everybody else to fight against each other instead of concentrating on who is actually taking away their rights.
Five Points [where Copper is set] was this horrible place where they just squeezed all the Irish and Germans in, and had them live in squalor. Everybody needs a scapegoat unfortunately, so in this case it was, “well it’s the freed blacks who are going to come and take all of our jobs.” That’s an unfortunate thing that humans do to each other all the time. And we always fall for it.
Do you think the show is making a statement – even though it’s a period piece – about politics today?
I think you can draw definite parallels. I don’t know if they overtly made it for that purpose, but you can definitely draw parallels to what’s happening today between the haves and the have-nots and the growing gap between the two. I think there are definite parallels all throughout history that you can see.