“There are cracks that are forming in Mabel,” says Sheila Atim about her character’s arc in the closing hour of Berry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Atim talks through her character’s role as a midwife on the plantation, the “crux” of her story and the honor of being able to lend a voice to her untold story.
The show follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved girl who makes a bid for freedom from slaveholding Georgia in 1800s America and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. Atim plays Cora’s mother, Mabel, who was born into slavery on the Randall plantation and is said to have abandoned her daughter when the latter was 10 years old. In the show’s final episode, named after Atim’s character, viewers learn that Mabel did not, in fact, abandon her daughter but tragically died trying to do the exact opposite.
On the Randall plantation, Mabel, a midwife, is the “medical professional,” Atim explains. This makes navigating the incredibly fraught dynamics of the plantation immensely difficult for Mabel, who is simultaneously the “ear of the overseers” and an enslaved person. “She does have to take over a caregiver role because she’s a midwife,” the actor says, underscoring that Mabel therefore “becomes a mother to everyone on the plantation,” including her friend Polly (Abigail Achiri). She’s “trying so hard to have the foresight to protect Polly from what it means to be somebody who’s lost a child,” Atim continues, highlighting that there is, however, a dearth of passion from the surrounding parties around which Mabel has to work in this regard.
After Polly kills her two foster children and then herself, Mabel is forced to clean up her friend’s and the two infants’ blood and Polly’s husband, Moses (Sam Malone), is whipped as punishment. This is when the cracks that are forming in Mabel throughout the episode “pop,” Atim describes, accentuating that “there’s no respite, there’s no time to breathe, there’s no compassion for that loss.” It’s simply too much for Mabel, so she flees into the swamp, without her daughter. Even though she instantly turns around upon realization that she’s left Cora behind, she never makes it back to the plantation since she dies after being bitten by a cottonmouth snake. Atim calls this the “crux” of both Mabel’s and Cora’s stories, as Cora has to escape not only the plantation but also the hatred she’s latched onto her mother to complete her journey out of slavery. Ultimately, the actor points out the “sad irony” of Mabel’s disappearance, given that she, the mother figure, will always be known for abandoning her child, when she, in reality, died trying to return to her.
In regard to being able to tell the story Mabel herself was never able to make known in its entirety, Atim underlines that the series tells the “stories of enslaved people in their fullness” and is not just a “gratuitous display of the horrors of American slavery.” She concludes, “As a Black person, any opportunity I can get to tell stories about Black people that do us a service, humanize us, show the world more of us than they may have originally thought — I am so happy to be a part of anything that’s doing that.”
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