Spoleto 2012 » Theater

Becoming Harriet Tubman, an engrossing tale of a legendary historic figure

Conducting the Underground Railroad



Natalie Daise is a masterful storyteller in the old Southern tradition of oral history. In her one-woman show, Becoming Harriet Tubman, which she wrote and performs, Daise tells the story of how a slave girl named Araminta Ross became the historical figure known as the "Moses" or "Conductor" of the Underground Railroad. For an hour, the audience at the nearly sold-out Threshold Repertory Theatre sat fixated on the lone Daise as she smoothly alternated between narrator and the multiple characters in Tubman's life.

Palmetto Theater Xperiment's production at the small, black-box venue is intimate with a simple set that consists of a wooden chair, rocking chair, and a coat rack on which hangs various costume pieces and props. Dressed as the narrator in a black blouse and black pants and a blue-gray head wrap, Daise is warm and welcoming. Her passion grows as the story rolls along.

To introduce Tubman's mother, "a force to be reckoned with," Daise wraps a long, white skirt around her waist, takes up her broom, and tells how Tubman experienced abuse as a little slave girl, which left permanent scars on her body. Greene's faith, strength, and determination obviously are traits passed down to her daughter.

Wearing a straw hat like that of a male field hand, Daise begins the remarkable and well-documented story of how a young Tubman survives a serious head injury, because "God's got something for this gal," her mother says. "Scar is stronger than skin." The scene of Greene nursing little Araminta and reciting the Lord's Prayer is beautifully acted.

Later, with walking stick, straw hat, white shawl, and skirt, Daise assumes the character of Harriet Tubman. She describes, in retrospect, how the heartbreaking end to her marriage to John Tubman was also a spiritual resurrection, inspiring her to fulfill the role that made her a legend: Harriet Tubman, illiterate fugitive slave, war spy, army nurse, laundress, cook, and abolitionist leader who helped free hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad.

Tubman's religious faith undergirds of all her courageous acts. Time and again, she says, God guided her on her travels, showed her whom to trust, "when to go and when to stop." After Philadelphia was no longer a welcoming destination for escaped slaves, Tubman and other abolitionists set their sights on Canada. "Who knew Heaven could be so cold," she muses with good humor.

Daise enthralls, combining Tubman's powerful words with her own artistic prose and lyrical styling. Adding a soulful tone, she incorporates traditional spirituals, which often served as code for the network of abolitionists and fugitive slaves. In her rich alto voice, she sings the haunting original song by Kim and Reggie Harris, "Heaven is Less Than Fair."

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