September 2008

Ron and Natalie Daise: A Conversation

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Talking with Ron and Natalie Daise is better described as talking and smiling and laughing with Ron and Natalie Daise. Maybe it is because they have performed together so much, but in our interview they would smoothly finish each others’ sentences, usually punctuated with rich laughter from one or both.

Older teenagers and young adults—and their parents—often recognize the stars of the award-winning Nick Jr. television series, Gullah Gullah Island. Older folks remember seeing a performance by Ron, or Ron and Natalie together, in one of their many shows that feature the Gullah culture in song and story. Still others have purchased one (or more) of Ron’s books—??Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St Helena Island?? was his first. His latest is Gullah Branches, West African Roots.

Ron, who grew up on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, and Natalie, who was born in Rochester, New York, have taken the Gullah/Geechee culture to heart, to study it and share it and preserve it—the stories, songs, suffering, faith and joy that make up the life of Sea Islanders.

Among other honors, they were given South Carolina’s prestigious Palmetto and Folk Heritage Awards. Ron, who is now vice president for creative education at Brookgreen Gardens, is the Lifetime Achievement recipient of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission’s 2008 “Preserving Our Places in History” Award. He still performs regularly at Brookgreen. Last year Ron was appointed to the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, one of 37 Congressionally-designated national heritage areas.

CH2 caught up the rather amazing couple at a coffee shop in Port Royal, South Carolina.

CH2: Gullah Gullah Island was a “must see” for many pre-school children. How did you get from St. Helena Island, South Carolina to national television?

Ron: It’s always said we produced it, we created it. We did neither of those. It came about, as part of a dinner conversation, really. Gloria Naylor had written (the novel) Mama Day. At a meeting at Penn Center, we were introduced to each other and developed a friendship. She was having Mama Day developed into a Disney movie which was to star and be directed by Laurence Fishburne. We were invited to dinner in the Land’s End community on St. Helena Island. During that dinner, we were having a conversation about children’s television with the woman who was to have been the executive producer (of the movie).

Natalie: I was pregnant with our second child, Simeon. Sara, our oldest, was three.

Ron: We knew what we liked, what we disliked about children’s TV. So we spoke candidly about that. Then she said, well, she and her business partner in New York City were planning on pitching a multicultural program idea to Nick Jr. It could be about…

Natalie: (cuts in, laughing) “Some magical island!” she said—“maybe about you guys; I hear you sing.” We’d been singing together for a while—about seven years.

Ron: She, nor any of the others present had really ever heard of us.

Natalie: But Gloria (Naylor) had and said we were good.

Ron: That’s how it all started. The show ran for four years. (aired1994-1998). This year, it’s running (reruns) on Noggin.

CH2: It’s been 10 years since the last show. Yet, based on the Web, there’s still a great deal of interest. How does that feel?

Natalie: It’s been interesting. There’s a Gullah Gullah Island Web group and they write letters to me. Sometimes I respond. I was communicating with one family; she had lost her husband. They really identified with the television show. One day I received a phone call and they were in Beaufort. They wanted to meet. I was the only person they knew here. I’m not quite sure what to do with that. They are interacting with a persona, not really with me, while, to some degree, we certainly brought all of ourselves to that show. But I don’t sit at home making snacks for all the neighborhood children. We weren’t strangers to them. You don’t think of people really watching it. You just do the work.

Ron: Following Gullah Gullah Island we had other ideas that we went forward with. The perception of those who watched Gullah Gullah Island, whatever performances we did, they were looking for Gullah Gullah Island-related things; or if it wasn’t Gullah Gullah Island, they thought we only did children’s pieces.

Natalie: Which had never been our market!

Ron: And the kind of performances that we had been doing were theatrical and educational and entertaining. We talked about history; we talked about it from the perspective of it still being relevant. We never had costumes; we were a little different, which was very intentional. We could tell the story from pre-emancipation to a story the ladies told sitting on the porch. You could be doing something like that and you’d look out and there would be 1,000 three-year-olds in the audience. (Large laugh.)

CH2: When did you two start singing together?

Natalie: We started singing together in my cousin’s house. He and my cousin were practicing in what was a combination of my aunt’s bedroom, piano room and family room. I walked in and heard this third part, they were like the baratone and first tenor. I heard this harmony, this really cool kind of dissonance. We just kept singing together. We sang at our wedding. (Delightful laugh.)

Ron: The year after our wedding, I’d been doing community performances, dramatizations, songs, and Natalie said the next time you do something, would you consider including me in it.

Natalie: We were going to be Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis! (Double laugh.)

Ron: I said, “Sure…”

Natalie: (jumps in) You could have at least warned me! (Both laughing, remembering.)

Ron: …at the next event to come along.

Natalie: His first book came out the year after we married. Eventually he came up with a script. He said I scripted the whole book. And we worked on the music—just two voices, unaccompanied. To create the rhythm vocally was a wonderful challenge. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it, and then Emory Campbell (executive director of the Penn Center) called, that very day, and he said, “I have all these museum curators here for a meeting, and I don’t have anything for them to do in the evening. Do something.” (The double laugh again.)

Ron: We stood and we read and performed the script.

Natalie: And that’s sort of what we were doing: schools, museums, libraries, conferences.

CH2: So what’s next?

Ron: We’re learning how we will run this commission (the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission) and how it will affect all the communities in the Cultural Heritage Corridor. It’s daunting. We’re just getting to know each other and how we’ll be working together. That process is in place.

Natalie: It’s funny. I was sitting in meditation the other day. I said, “Now think of your plans for the future.” I looked and didn’t see anything. It’s unusual, but we’ve been there before. I started my first job 20 years ago, actually going to work every day. I had no idea what I was going to do when I grew up. (Laughter.) I landed in a company called Environments, in the art and marketing department, as a designer and illustrator. It’s great.

I like singing. We don’t do as much. The kids are older. They’re teenagers. You don’t go off and leave them! Once in a while we get to do something together. So what’s next is whatever is next. We have faith.

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