Airing throughout February (as part of the network’s Black History Month programming lineup) is the second season of the PBS original series “Mercy Street” (Sundays at 8 p.m. ET, beginning January 22), a Civil War-era drama about the chaotic world of Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia, and the Mansion House Hospital in the early years of the war. The original PBS drama explores, among other topics, the role that African Americans — including slaves, free blacks and contraband (African Americans who fled slavery in the hope of securing their freedom behind Union lines) — played in the hospital and the city; the upcoming second season will focus on the changing predicament of the burgeoning black population.
This season introduces newcomer Charlotte Jenkins (played by Tony Award-winning actress Patina Miller), a runaway slave turned abolitionist who goes to Alexandria to help the contraband population adapt to freedom. Charlotte Jenkins is a composite of numerous real-life historical figures, most prominently Harriet Jacobs, who would escape from slavery and become a writer, joining the abolitionist movement. She wrote the autobiographical novel, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which was published in 1861.
Via PBS: Charlotte Jenkins is a smart, capable, feisty former slave-turned-activist who comes to Alexandria to help the growing population of refugees newly escaped from bondage (also called “contrabands”) in making the transition to freedom. She soon finds out that they need far more than education. Most contrabands have little more than the rags on their backs and few prospects for employment. The Union Army, tasked with their welfare, does little more than provide basic rations, and those are sporadic at best. (A little-known part of Civil War history, contraband camps existed in a sort of refugee netherworld between free and enslaved, with nowhere to go, no food and no money. Many died of disease due to overcrowding and starvation before ever learning what true freedom meant.) As soon as Charlotte arrives in Alexandria, she sees the magnitude of the crisis, recognizing the onset of a smallpox epidemic in one of the contraband camps. She comes to Mansion House Hospital seeking assistance and support, only to be met with prejudice and a cold shoulder from the administration. Undeterred, Charlotte turns to Mary Phinney and Samuel Diggs for help. Together they embark on a mission to contain the epidemic. Her alliance with Samuel Diggs sparks a friendship that holds potential for something deeper.
In terms of other black actors who appear in key roles in “Mercy Street,” who are returning for the upcoming 2nd season:, and all are series regulars, and are expected to return.
— McKinley Belcher III plays Sam Diggs – a free black laborer in the employ of Dr. Summers. He harbors a secret knowledge of and ability in medicine, which he learned as a young servant in an enlightened northern doctor’s household. Sam is qualified to do much more than anyone would allow at this point. A black man with education and talent, he is caught between two worlds and two modes of thinking about the future. He is drawn to Aurelia. Despite her reserve and prickly facade, he gradually earns her trust. When she finally shares her secrets, he feels compelled to help her, no matter the cost.
— Shalita Grant plays Aurelia Johnson – a young “contraband” (escaped slave) employed as a laundress at the hospital that’s at the center of the series. She has seen and endured things as a house slave on a southern plantation that she tries to bury deep within. Her life here is not much better than the one she fled. There is an undeniable romantic pull between her and Sam Diggs, although it is complicated by her involvement with the steward, Silas Bullen. Aurelia is single-mindedly focused on a goal that she believes can only be accomplished with the help of Silas and his many shady connections and illicit activities.
— And L. Scott Caldwell plays Belinda Gibson – a house slave on the plantation of the Green family. The war has turned her world upside down and yet, despite he owner’s offer of freedom and the lure of new opportunities, she chooses to stay put out of loyalty, love and a practical realization that freedom may not be all it’s cracked up to be. At least here in the Green home she has respect, three square meals a day and a roof over her head. The main drawback, now that many of the servants have left, is that Belinda must fulfill a multiplicity of duties: lady’s maid, seamstress, cook, laundress and housekeeper. Sometimes, she wonders if she has made the right choice, and continues privately to ponder her options.
Season two will pick up directly from the dramatic events at the end of the season one finale, continuing to explore the growing chaos within Alexandria. The season will introduce a number of new elements, taking us closer to the fight and into the halls of Confederate power, all set against the intensifying war, starting with the Seven Days’ Battle and culminating with Antietam.
The first season, executive produced by Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Lisa Q. Wolfinger and David Zabel, drew a 3.85 rating (Nielsen Live + 7) for the January 17, 2016 premiere, reaching more than 5.7 million viewers.
“We’re thrilled to welcome a new set of actors, directors and historical advisors to the ‘Mercy Street’ family for Season Two, as well as introduce viewers to compelling new characters with captivating story lines,” said executive producer David W. Zucker.
“Season One of ‘Mercy Street’ received such a positive response, and PBS is delighted to add these new members to our talented and diverse cast and crew for Season Two,” said Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Officer and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS.
Amazon Prime Video is the exclusive premium subscription streaming home for “Mercy Street,” with each episode available to Prime members in the U.S. seven days after its broadcast on PBS stations. You can also watch online on PBS’ website, and catch up on season 1 before season 2 begins.
In the video below, meet all the new characters joining the series for its second season, starting with Patina Miller’s Charlotte Jenkins: