The local beauty parlor and barber shop have long served as centers of black life, places where you can not only get your hair done, but also socialize, swap stories, and catch up on the news. In Kent County and across the country, black-owned and black-supported barbershops and beauty parlors generate a sense of pride and community. “At the beauty parlor and barber shop” says Kent County native Marlon Saunders, “all topics are open for discussion and debate.”
As the 2017 Frederick Douglass Fellow at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, Saunders researched and produced an original multi-media musical piece entitled “Choppin’ at the Shop.” Using the imagery of the barbershop and the beauty parlor as a backdrop, Saunders’ multi-media work weaves the tale of family, economics, race, and gender in order to demonstrate the power of hopes and dreams. Held on May 18 at the Garfield Center for the Arts, the production is the culminating event of seven weeks of public arts and humanities programs offered in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street traveling exhibition, “The Way We Worked” on display at Sumner Hall through May 20.
In the initial research phase, Saunders invited over 30 people to his parents’ home in Worton, Maryland, where they discussed black life in Kent County and how living and working conditions have changed over time. “We realized that in Kent County, the 1970s brought black teachers into an integrated school system, black tellers and bankers into banks in town, and black workers into factories where they traditionally weren’t employed,” Saunder says. “Black police officers and the first black policewoman came to town in the early 1980s. Not to mention that the present day has brought about a few changes in the workplace of Kent County—there are black women working as court clerks, doctors, and nurses, as well as black men and women working in academia.”
For “Choppin’ at the Shop,” Saunders uses the recorded stories and conversations as melody along with contemporary and historic photographs gleaned from personal photo albums and public archives like the Historical Society of Kent County. The final production will include memorable songs from the ’70s and will be performed by Saunders himself and acclaimed Kent County vocalists Karen Somerville, Irene Moore, and Lester Barett, Jr. “Choppin’ at the Shop” is made possible through funding from the Kent County Arts Council.
A graduate of Kent County High School, Marlon Saunders is an singer, songwriter and record producer. He has taught voice at Berklee College of Music and is currently a faculty member at NYU’s Tish Center for the Arts, Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Saunders has two solo recordings and recently toured with Stevie Wonder on his Songs in the Key of Life Tour, served as vocal contractor for Sam Smith, and has toured with Bobby McFerrin as a member of his vocal group, Voicestra. As a session and touring singer, he has worked with Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Sting, Joe Henderson, Nine Inch Nails, and Dance Theatre of Harlem, among many others.
Tickets to “Choppin’ at the Shop,” available by reservation only, have quickly sold out. Those with reservations are advised that doors will open at 6 P.M, and that unclaimed reservations will be released to wait-listed guests at 6:45 p.m.
For more information: please call the Starr Center at 410-810-7161.