ISAAC by Marlon Saunders, based on the Autobiography of Isaac Mason

The composition ISAAC is based on the published narrative Life of Isaac Mason as a Slave. Mr. Mason was a slave of the Mansfield Family who lived at what is now 101 Spring Avenue, Chestertown, Maryland – the new home of the Kent Cultural Alliance. Mr. Mason was a house slave to James and Mary Mansfield in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He delivered coffins for Mr. Mansfield, a local minister and carpenter, but also land owner. Mrs. Mansfield was particularly brutal and violent to Mr. Mason. At one point, after being beaten near to death by Mary, Mr. Mansfield moved Isaac to one of his farms to keep him away from his violent wife. This new work, commissioned by the Kent Cultural Alliance in association with the Washington College Starr Center, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, is scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2021 in Chestertown, Maryland.

Composer/Writer Marlon Saunders, a native son of Kent County, Maryland, says “I am grateful to have been asked to work on this project.” The character Isaac is to be played by the actor, Paris Nesbit who has worked in such Broadway and National tours of shows such as Sister Act, Book of Mormon, Hair Spray and Show Boat. The musical composition centers around Isaac starting off with an exciting opening number entitled “Isaac”, a declaration of who he was, is and shall be. “Death of Isaac”, a runaway slave, a Black man in the United States of America is haunting theme of our country.

After composing this song in February, March approached and we learned our country would be shutting down for COVID. In the midst of this we also have seen a lot shift in terms of racial injustice, the protests and senseless killings. I mention this because I had shared with John that I had intended to have the musical work be a juxtaposition of time,” says Saunders. “This is a riveting story; the light and darkness of slavery and its effects upon modern society of today. Isaac is always the center of the story and stage…and characters appear as a backdrop or in some cases, as focus characters who contribute to the story.

Saunders says there are a few songs and moments in the work which he envisions the interplay of local artists on stage. He is taking the fall to re-write some of the script which is broken into fragmented hip hop/spoken word, straight monologue or step out conversation. He is doing this because much of what has happened in our country in the past 6 months is so connected to his initial thought of juxtaposition and it resonates even more so for him.

The Kent Cultural Alliance is honored to work with Mr. Saunders on this commission. As we work toward the complete renovation of our building in Chestertown, we are working to honor Isaac Mason’s life and story in several ways. We have commissioned a new portrait by local artist Jason Patterson which will permanently hang in the lobby of our building. We have this work by Marlon Saunders premiering in the fall of 2021, and we are working with the Maryland Tourism office to include our building on the National Parks Service’s “Network to Freedom” highlighting sites connected to the Underground Railroad. We look forward to sharing all of this with our community, residents and visitors alike, in the year ahead.

Commissioned by the Kent Cultural Alliance with Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project (Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College).