Portraying a historical figure is a challenging form of storytelling. The most important aspect I think of when developing my program, is to respect the person you are portraying. Would this person approve of your interpretation? Would the family and ancestors still living enjoy your program and would they recognize the stories as true or acceptable adaptations?
Historic storytellers have an obligation to conduct research about the character and about the world in the time of the personís life. Knowing more about the physical, social and political environment provides information for filling in blanks in the stories. For instance when someone ask about the typed of crops the slaves in Maryland produced, it is good to know, it was corn and wheat and not cotton.
As a 92-year old version of Harriet Tubman, I have the leeway of presenting a personality that most people with a little knowledge of Harriet Tubman would find as new information. The classic depiction of Harriet Tubman is the enactment of a journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad with a focus on the 8 or 9 years of her life. In my program, I present a full lifetime of stories about a real woman before, during and for 50 years after her experiences on the Underground Railroad. When there is a whole lifetime of stories to tell, there are endless versions and themes to draw on to meet the needs of the audiences.
While in character, answering questions as a 92-year old woman, the audience is given a rare opportunity to actually come as close to meeting Harriet Tubman as they will ever be. Historical storytelling is challenging and very rewarding.
Karol Brown is a storyteller from Washington State who creates a unique blend of storytelling and health advocacy in her performances. For more information, please see her website at visitharriettubman.com. Follow Karolís Twitter at @browntones.