Harriet Tubman’s slender frame slithered into the day room of the Temple Hills Community Center like a hunted animal, hiding behind potted plants, whistling and waving her arms as if signaling to a group of runaway slaves tucked close behind her. She peered at her audience from under a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, adjusting her tattered clothes and the burlap knapsack across her shoulder.
“I love bringing history alive to an audience,” said Dr. Daisy Nelson Century, who portrays Tubman and other black heroines using only a few props. “When I put on those clothes, I become Harriet Tubman, or whoever I’m portraying at the time.”
A native Philadelphian, Century always wanted to act. Now a retired educator with a decade’s experience as a one-woman show, Century portrays Harriet Tubman; Sojourner Truth; Mary Fields; Bessie Coleman; Phyllis Wheatley and Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh, who reigned for more than 20 years.
Century’s performances are planned, but not scripted; she has never written down what she’s going to say. “I’ve already done my research on my subject, gathering as much information as I can from museum sources and historians,” Century said.
As a historical interpreter, Century dresses like the character and weaves her story from birth to death to engage the audience.
”I essentially just try to feel how would she say this, or how would I feel if confronted based on the various oppositions of that time period. I want to “edu-tain,” said Century. “This simply means I want to educate them with something they may not have known about the subject before, and entertain to draw them into the person’s possible outlook on life during their journey.”
During the performance, Century spoke of Tubman’s teachings from her father during her adolescence. She then led children in singing “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song used to encode escape instructions and a map which enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom.
Returning to her teaching roots, Century allowed the children to examine a gourd and a map showing the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and north, in relationship to the North Star. Century then answered questions from the audience.
“We were very pleased to have Dr. Century come to our center and portray Harriet Tubman,” said Ms. Alexandria Wilson, Temple Hills Community Center assistant director.
“From the moment she began you felt like you were there and a part of what was going on. I thought her interpretation was great and she made me more aware of things that I didn’t know about Harriet Tubman,” said Wilson. “I’m definitely a believer in the power of knowledge. We definitely would like for her to come back in the future.”
Century, who conducted two Harriet Tubman camps last year, works to keep black history in the community beyond Black History Month. “I tied the camps in with learning about how Tubman used the North Star to help lead more than 300 slaves to freedom. We also went hiking and had a great time.”
“I spent a gazillion dollars going to school,” said Century, who earned her Doctor of Education degree from Temple University, a Bachelor of Arts degree and Master’s in Science Education from South Carolina State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Biology at Claflin University. She is also an award-winning educator, accomplished author and singer.
“I always wanted to be an actress, but my parents would say New York City will devour you or you can’t make a living being an actress. However, I would do summer theater, church plays; wherever there was a stage I was on it. And the feeling of wanting to act just kept coming back,” said Century. “Most people I know tell me I haven’t stopped teaching yet, I’ve just graduated to another classroom. So I retired early to do this on a full time basis.”
Century contacted the American Historical Theatre and auditioned for American Historical Theater founders Pamela and William Sommerfield in 1999. Since then, she has appeared in venues that include the National Defense Organization, Belmont Mansion, National Archives, Sojourner Truth House, Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site, the Helicopter Museum, and numerous schools, libraries, museums and historic sites throughout the United States.