George Mason and his Legacy, performed at Gunston Hall in Northern Virginia, immerses visitors into the complex relationships of master and enslaved. George Mason, his son, and their enslaved housekeeper Nell confront the difficult issues of freedom, individual rights, and slavery from three very different viewpoints in the late 1700s. This performance inspires visitors to experience their stories and then discuss the democratic ideals that Mason and his contemporaries faced as they wrote the Constitution of the new United States.
George Mason IV is the 50 year old wealthy owner of Gunston Hall, as well as several other plantations. He is also the owner of more than 125 enslaved people. He is considered to be one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable men in Virginia, and will travel to Philadelphia to help create the Constitution of his country. He fears “corruption and abuse of the people by the government” and therefore wants to include in the constitution a written declaration of human rights to protect the citizens of the new United States of America. He is adamantly opposed to the slave trade.
Nell is an enslaved woman in her late 30s. She works in the house for the Mason family and silently submits to Mason and his son’s commands. But that doesn’t prevent Nell from making occasional “asides” directly to the audience…offering her “hidden” thoughts, a humorous take, or a completely different perspective of the issue at hand.
George Mason V is 23 years old and Mason’s eldest son. He is pro-slavery, and doesn’t agree with some of his father’s more radical anti-slavery beliefs. He is not particularly kind to servants.
Structure for “George Mason and his Legacy”:
Introduction: Nell welcomes visitors outside the house, sets the context of scenes to follow, and poses a question the audience will address later after seeing scenes providing them insight:
What is George Mason’s legacy? Is it as a patriotic Founding Father, author of Virginia’s Constitution, inspiration for the US Bill of Rights and outspoken advocate against the slave trade of the late 18th century? Or, is his political legacy overshadowed by his legacy as a slaveholder?
She then leads visitors into the house for Scenes One and Two.
Scene One, spring 1776: George Mason V is trying to persuade his father to attend the Virginia Convention, where he will ultimately draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution;
Scene Two, fall 1787: George Mason IV has recently returned from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and will oppose the ratification of the US Constitution since it does not include a Bill of Rights. His son cannot understand why his father would not sign the Constitution, even without a Bill of Rights.
Conclusion: Nell leads the audience back outside, and facilitates an interactive discussion with the audience. She allows them to reflect on what they have seen and challenges them to consider how the Founding Fathers viewed democracy. Finally, the audience shares feedback on how they view George Mason’s legacy.
During the scenes in the house, visitors, who are within several feet of the actors, see Mason eloquently argue that the Constitution of the United States must protect the rights of all men, including slaves, while his own family’s female slave stands patiently nearby – practically invisible to him and his son (but certainly not to the audience). In several scenes, the action freezes, and Nell steps forward to offer her thoughts about freedom and how she is treated – usually at odds with how both Masons are thinking and speaking. Her comments are funny, incisive, and ultimately poignant.
My goal in writing and directing was to put visitors intimately “in the moment” in two events in George Mason’s life. By understanding the background of these moments and hearing discussion of ideas significant to our democracy, I hope to give participants the opportunity to consider the value and importance of the ideas espoused by Mason. By seeing dramatic museum theatre performances, hearing the words of Mason and discussing implications of his ideas and answering the question about his legacy (posed to them at the beginning by Nell), visitors will develop a deeper understanding of the beginnings of our government and the ideas that continue to shape it today.
To read an excerpt from "George Mason and His Legacy" please see attachment.