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Arts: Telling stories on screen, on stage and on canvas

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Natalie Daise is being discovered — again.

She and her husband, Ron, starred in Nickelodeon’s “Gullah Gullah Island” before he took a job with Brookgreen Gardens and she decided to devote more time to parenting. Their children are grown now, and the Daises have moved to Pawleys Island from Beaufort. She is free to re-explore storytelling, singing and even painting.

Natalie will tell one of her favorite stories, “The People Could Fly,” Saturday as part of the two-day Heart 2 Heart Women’s Retreat at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church. It’s a folktale originating from Johns Island, she said, a freedom story about people who had been given the power to fly but had forgotten. One person on the plantation remembered the words. “I love that story,” Natalie said. “It’s important because many of us forget that we have the power to be lifted up above a situation in which we find ourselves and there are words that can empower us if those words are shared.”

Natalie and Ron will perform “God’s Trombones” on Feb. 21 at Brookgreen’s Lowcountry Center auditorium at 1 and 3 p.m. “It’s a program we have not done together in 20 years,” she said, “fun and challenging.” It was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1917 as a series of sermon poems developed from the oratory skills of black preachers. “Big and beautiful,” Natalie said, “it’s full of wonderful linguistic phrases.”

In September, Natalie will go to New York to perform her one-woman show on Harriet Tubman during the United Solo Theater Festival. She plays five characters in the first act to introduce Tubman, who helped thousands flee slavery via the Underground Railroad. The first character is her mother, Harriet Green.

“Any good Southerner knows that if you want to know about somebody you ask about their people,” Natalie said. “Her mother was quite an interesting and powerful woman in her own right.”

Tubman’s original name was Artiminta Ross. She married a freedman named John Tubman, but he would not go with her when she fled to freedom from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Philadelphia. She took her mother’s first name but kept her husband’s name “because she loved him,” Natalie said. “Once she becomes free, Harriet steps into the story. I’m really excited about this story. I love telling it because it contains coded message songs and a song written by my friends Kim and Reggie Harris, who have been doing freedom and folk music for decades.”

Natalie and Ron Daise have been performing for more than 30 years. They met in Beaufort when she came for a two-week visit from Upstate New York. Her cousin had been writing music with her future husband, and she heard them sing in church. It was not love at first sight, she said, more interest and intrigue.

Natalie joined the group and they sang contemporary Christian music. She and Ron married, and he wrote a book that he promoted with readings and songs.

“I was sitting in the audience thinking, ‘Maybe we could be like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee,’ but I was just playing. We were at the library in Hilton Head and Ron said, ‘My wife will help me sing this song.’ So I did.”

He turned the book into a show they first performed at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island at a conference for museum directors. “They gave us a standing ovation,” Natalie said.

Her father was horrified when Natalie told him she was quitting her job as secretary of the planning department in Hilton Head to become a performer. “I’m a storyteller, Daddy,” she said. “I freed myself, and we traveled around the country telling stories and singing songs for audiences, children to adults.”

The Daises’ rise to television stardom was more right time, right place, Natalie said. The Disney Company selected a novel by one of their friends, Gloria Naylor, for a movie to be shot on St. Helena Island. They met the director, Laurence Fishbourne, over dinner. Their big break didn’t come until Natalie was nine months pregnant. “I looked like a whale,” she said.

The Daises hired a video crew to follow them around for a day, and the rest is history. “It was grace,” Natalie said. “There are folk out there knocking on doors, auditioning for everything, sending tapes all over. We were just doing what we do. We didn’t know anything about TV, babes in the woods. The show aired from 1994 to 2000 and has been on in one form or another ever since, dubbed into 23 languages. That was really cool.”

Natalie ran an arts and crafts business in Beaufort and worked for a company that trained early childhood teachers while she was away from performing. Now she’s reinventing herself.

Some of her paintings will be in shows at the College of Charleston and in Darien, Ga., this month. She’ll have a solo show at city hall in North Charleston in November. “I’ve got to paint, paint, paint,” she said.

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