Natalie Daise Reveals What it Takes to Become Harriet Tubman

This is Harriet Tubman’s year, according to Natalie Daise, a storyteller out of Beaufort, S.C. Daise presents her one-woman show, “Becoming Harriet Tubman,” as part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. She originally put on “Becoming Harriet Tubman” at last year’s Piccolo festival, but especially wanted to perform it again to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tubman’s death. Daise portrays four people at turning points in Tubman’s life, including Harriet’s mother, her first slave owner, a field worker and Harriet herself. Daise chats with The Post and Courier about life as a professional storyteller, as well as what it took to get into the life of Harriet Tubman.

Listen to a sample of Daise playing each of the four characters (Audio by Paige Cooperstein).

A lot of people will remember you from your family’s Nick Jr. show Gullah Gullah Island. How has your storytelling evolved since then?
Daise: I was already a storyteller before the show. My husband had written a book about Gullah culture called “Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage.” He interviewed a lot of the elders on St. Helena Island and I brought those stories to the stage. At one performance, we met an executive producer from Nick and she said, “We could do a show with you guys!” I was pregnant with my second baby at the time and we shot the show in Orlando until he was five.

Can you explain a little bit about the Gullah culture?
Daise: My husband is Gullah and for many years people misunderstood the culture and the language. The Gullah stories I told were to preserve African culture in the coastal islands of the Carolinas and Georgia. Gullah traditions come largely from West Africa and we talked about things like the dietary practices, part of which is eating rice every day.

Natalie Daise, playwright and actor in “Becoming Harriet Tubman.”
Photo: Josh Austin

Why did you decide to tell the life story of Harriet Tubman?
Daise: People tend to think of African American culture as starting in slavery, but really that was just a transitional period. While I was telling stories about the Gullah culture, I came across Charlotte Forten, who was the first black instructor to white students on St. Helena Island in 1862. In her journal, she mentions coming into Beaufort, South Carolina, and having lunch with Harriet Tubman. I thought, “What?! How did I not know about this? Actually Harriet Tubman spent quite a bit of time in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

Take me through your writing process for Becoming Harriet Tubman.
Daise: I originally wrote a 15-minute show on her. As I got going, people would say, “Why don’t you do that Harriet Tubman Show?” And I thought, “I don’t really have a Harriet Tubman show.” But I was interested in who she was as a person and how she became an icon. I always tell this story, and it is true. A friend of mine said she hated one-person shows because it felt like being trapped in a closet with someone who wouldn’t shut up. So I thought the more perspectives you have, the more you can flesh Harriet out.

You portray four characters at formative moments in Harriet Tubman’s life. How did you decide which people to include in Becoming Harriet Tubman?
Daise: The first voice that came to me was her mother’s because of the research that I’d done, but I also felt I could really identify with her as a mother. I also chose a field hand because one of the iconic stories they tell about Harriet is how she got her skull fractured. I thought it’d be interesting to hear it from the field hand’s point of view because he was really the catalyst of that moment for her. Harriet Tubman is also included, but she does not tell her story until the second half because she is created really by her circumstances.

You performed Becoming Harriet Tubman as a part of Piccolo Spoleto last year. What made you want to perform it again this year?
Daise: The first time I did the show was February 2012. Someone said I should do it for Piccolo and so I said okay. It was a fairly new show last year, but shows are always evolving. Right now, it feels complete. I have such a relationship with her at this point. When she became complete, I just really wanted to do her. I thought she needed more time on the stage. Plus this is Harriet Tubman’s year. This year is the 100th anniversary of her death, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement. I will probably do something else if I do Piccolo again. But this year just felt right to do Harriet Tubman again.

If you go

  • Where: Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St.
  • When: May 24 at 8 p.m., May 31 at 6 p.m., June 7 at 8 p.m.
  • Tickets: $18 Adults, $16 Students/Seniors

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