Most people who passed elementary school history have heard of Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and feminist who fought for equal rights in the 1800s. But not everyone knows her whole story, like how she was sold with a flock of sheep for $100 when she was nine years old. Or how in her early years, she only spoke Dutch. Or how her given name was Isabella Baumfree until she changed it in 1843. Or how she was one of the first black women in the country to win a trial against a white man.
Danielle Lee Greaves, the actress who plays Truth in Charleston Stage’s upcoming production of A Woman Called Truth, didn’t even know many details about the activist’s life. But as soon as she landed the role, she started doing her research.
“I really enjoy portraying real women in history,” says Greaves, a native New Yorker who’s appeared in everything from Hairspray to The Lion King to the TV show Smash. “I, of course, knew who she was, but I didn’t know her story. In doing research and discovering who she is, I’ve really grown to love her. She is an amazing woman.”
Because Truth couldn’t read or write, Olive Gilbert helped the former slave pen A Narrative of Sojourner Truth. In it, she shares the details of being traded between slave owners as a child and her ultimate escape with her infant daughter in 1826. Truth eventually became more and more involved in both the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, speaking publicly on inequality. Her best-known speech was called “A’int I a Woman?” Truth died in 1883, and in 1981, playwright Sandra Fenichel Asher adapted Truth’s story for the stage.
Charleston Stage’s Julian Wiles is directing, and rehearsals started earlier this month. “It is an interesting process because it’s collaborative,” Greaves says. “It’s not just getting the script and coming in and doing the show as rote. We are really working together to create the show in the best possible form that it can be, so it is being reshaped in some places. It feels like a workshop. We have script changes or we organize the scenes in a different way so it is very exciting. It’s organic in a lot of ways.”
Greaves says that one of the biggest challenges of playing Truth is getting her accent right, and she’s done extensive research to stay true to Truth’s dialect. “She was a slave in New York in Dutch County, so it is not a Southern slave, where I have more reference on audio and getting a sound of what she might sound like,” Greaves says. “I’m creating it myself, so I’m finding that is still a challenge for me. What exactly is her voice? But it is kind of exciting. I’m drawing off of some of the inspiration of someone like Daniel Day Lewis, who, you have no idea what Abraham Lincoln sounds like, but you create the voice. So I’m still developing that for myself, because she ages throughout the play.”
A staple in classrooms, A Woman Called Truth is appropriate for all ages. “It is going to be educational and entertaining, not just bogged down in history,” Greaves says. “I think it’s an important story to tell.”
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