When travelers on Highway 17 cross the Combahee River (the "C" in ACE Basin) south of Charleston, they're likely to notice the large sign dedicating the bridge to abolitionist and Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman. What few motorists likely realize, however, is that the bridge crosses in almost the exact spot where Tubman became the first woman (let alone, an African-American woman) to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War on June 1, 1863.
One hundred and fifty years later to the week, South Carolina-based storyteller Natalie Daise will take the stage in Charleston to bring that raid — and so many others that Tubman fought, both personal and literal — back to life. "My big question I want to answer through the performance is, 'How did this illiterate, abused child become this iconic person?'" says Daise, who wrote and performs the play, utilizing five characters (including Harriet) to tell the story. "Sometimes you ask somebody, 'How did you become who you are?' and they can't really tell you. But other folks can give an inkling as to how they evolved."
Tubman was born into bondage in Maryland. She suffered a devastating head injury as a child when a man threw a two-pound weight at an escaping slave and accidentally hit her instead. For the remainder of her life, Tubman suffered from seizures and occasional delirium.
Surviving the accident may have also made her fearless. After escaping to Pennsylvania, she repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher her family and other escaped slaves to safety, eluding capture by traveling during long winter nights. She earned the nickname of Moses for her ability to escape would-be captors, even as the reward for her capture escalated.
During the Civil War, Tubman traveled to Beaufort, S.C., where she taught and worked as a nurse at the Penn School on St. Helena Island. She hatched and led a plan to steer three Union boats up the Combahee River, surprising the plantation owners along its banks and freeing 750 slaves in a single day.
After the war, Tubman joined her family to upstate New York. She lived there until 1911 and continued to fight for just causes, including caring for orphans and working for women's suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony.
Daise made an opposite migration, leaving her home in Rochester, N.Y. to settle on St. Helena Island, where her husband Ron grew up (he's also written a book about the island's history called Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage). The couple turned the book into a presentation that they toured throughout the country, including close to home at the Penn Center, now a museum dedicated to Gullah culture and the school's role in educating freed African Americans.
Daise then began acting in the role of Tubman for visiting groups. "I don't know if I fell into Harriet's life or if she fell into mine," she explains. The recurring role eventually led Daise to write the songs and dialogue of the hour-long play, Becoming Harriet Tubman, which she debuted in Beaufort in February 2012, before performing at last year's Piccolo Spoleto. She returns this year for three more shows at the Circular Congregational Church.
"A one-person show can feel like being locked in a closet with someone who doesn't shut up," admits Daise, explaining more of the reasoning behind using multiple characters to tell Tubman's story. "If you ask my husband about me, you'll get a different perspective than if you asked my son or a friend. I chose characters that could tell the story from various angles."
When Tubman is an infant, her mistress gives her point of view as the slave's owner. When Tubman is hit in the head by the weight, the story is told by the fleeing fieldhand. But by the time Tubman is freeing her kinfolk by the hundred, she's giving her own account.
"Once she crosses into freedom, she is her own woman, and she has become 'Harriet Tubman,'" Daise explains. "She steps into her role of Moses, and after that, only she can tell it."