Little Simeon from ‘Gullah Gullah Island’ is all grown up now — and acting for BET
People have always known Simeon Daise before he knew them.
Friends and classmates and adults in his life growing up in Beaufort knew the son of Ron and Natalie Daise. The family became household names as the stars of a groundbreaking children’s television show.
Twenty years after “Gullah Gullah Island” last aired on Nickelodeon, Simeon Daise said he embraces his piece of fame as the baby boy from the fictional family who lived on a mythical island that pulled from Gullah culture and Ron’s native St. Helena Island.
And now he’s back on television and working to parlay the singing, dancing and acting that defined his youth into a full-time acting career.
“It always came natural because of my background,” Simeon said. “I was born into it.”
Simeon, 25, recently appeared on the BET biopic “The Bobby Brown Story” and was recently cast in the upcoming BET drama “American Soul,” which will tell the story of “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius.
Gullah Gullah Island ran for four seasons from 1994-1998. For 70 episodes filmed in Orlando and Beaufort, the Daise family reached preschool-aged children with an engaging sing-along format and introduced them to Gullah Geechee culture.
Gullah Gullah Island was notable for its positive portrayal of a black family, Simeon said.
“I believe that was the first time there was a show like that where kids from all different races could turn on the television and see themselves and see themselves being happy with each other,” he said.
Simeon was 5 months old when filming started. He was friends with a fictional yellow frog character known as “Binyah Binyah.” before he knew what it meant to be an actor.
To him, the frog was real, his mom said.
And so when a young Simeon caught a glimpse of the man behind Binyah Binyah — actor Philip Garcia had removed the head from his costume — there was a moment of shock, Natalie remembered this week.
When Simeon arrived at Beaufort Elementary as a kindergartner, his classmates already knew him.
“He didn’t have a sense of himself as an actor as a child,” Natalie said. “He was just hanging out with his family. It was other people who gave him that sense and said ‘hey, you’re that kid on TV,’ which was very confusing for him initially.”
The road back to television included wrestling with whether to act or fall in line with friends while in school. It was a challenge to be the theater kid, Natalie remembers.
But Simeon participated in a summer musical theater at USC Beaufort Performing Arts Center.
He was the king in “The King and I.”
He played Joseph in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
He danced and sang as the lead in “High School Musical.”
Simeon participated in school performances through his junior year of high school before deciding to focus on basketball. He was the guard on Beaufort High School’s basketball team.
By that time, Ron had taken a job at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet and Natalie stayed in Beaufort temporarily to see Simeon through his senior year and help care for extended family. The family eventually moved from Beaufort to Georgetown, where Ron and Natalie still live.
At Brookgreen Gardens, Ron is the vice president for creative education and entertains and educates visitors on the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of enslaved West Africans in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Simeon had moved to Atlanta in 2013 to pursue acting. He moved back in 2016 after he lost his job at a call center, totaled his car and a cousin died.
He was working part-time at a laundry facility in Georgetown and living at home when he heard about the chance to audition for a part in “A Lesson Before Dying,” a play based on a 1993 novel by Ernest Gaines. Before even driving from South Carolina to Atlanta to audition, he’d told his boss he would need a month off to star in the play.
Simeon landed a lead role as Jefferson, a young black man wrongfully convicted of murder and executed. The performance touched his mother deeply, earned positive reviews and eventually helped lead to his television roles.
His acting training so far has not been formal, but through some one-on-one coaching, he said.
He enrolled in community college classes while working at the call center but said he felt he wasn’t fulfilling his purpose. A mentor encouraged him to pursue acting full time.
Simeon had the support of his family, who knows the reality of performing for a living.
“We know that there’s feast and famine,” Natalie said. “Sometimes it’s famine and a little less famine. Sometimes all you can do is remember there was a feast at one point in time.”
Simeon said he is confident in his choice and glad for the chance to define himself after being long known for Gullah Gullah Island. He wants people to know it’s OK to take an nontraditional path.
“You have to be willing to give it all or nothing,” he said. “I’m far from where I want to go, but you can have it. You can literally live your dream if you’re willing to say it’s this and nothing else.”