Walt Whitman comes to life at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Walt Whitman comes to life at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale

Kim Nuzzo in costume as Walt Whitman.

Two stalwarts of Roaring Fork Valley theater and poetry are bringing Walt Whitman to life in a new play.

"Multitudes," written by Valerie Haugen Nuzzo and Kim Nuzzo, will take the stage at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale on Wednesday night. The Aspen Poets' Society hosted a staged reading of it in March.

The hourlong drama, with Kim Nuzzo as Whitman, recounts Whitman's life — his time as a journalist, his struggles with his sexuality, his transformative time as a nurse during the Civil War and the composition of the timeless poems in "Leaves of Grass." The book, which began as 12 poems published after his father's death in 1855 and grew to 400 by the end of Whitman's life in 1892, is a sprawling work of genius that gave us "Song of Myself" and "Song of the Open Road," "I Sing the Body Electric" and "I Hear America Singing," "O Captain! My Captain!" and defined the American spirit.

In their play, the Nuzzos sought to solve — or at least explore — the mystery of how Whitman became Whitman.

"He was this journalist who was living this undistinguished life, then all of a sudden in 1855, boom! 'Song of Myself' happened," Kim said in March. "Something happened, and nobody really knows what it was, that made him Walt Whitman."

The deeply researched play makes dramatic use of Whitman's poetry, along with his diaries — the Nuzzos wanted his voice to drive "Multitudes."

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"We let him tell his own story," Valerie said.

The project traces its roots to several years ago, when Valerie found a Civil War diary written by an ancestor five generations back. It came to her in a box of her mother's belongings, following her death. The diary's author, a Texan, fought for the Confederacy.

"I was sickened reading it, it was so distressing," she said. "There was so much death."

As she began a years-long research project on the Civil War, Whitman's war poetry loomed large and demanded its own dramatic exploration.

The Nuzzos were surprised, they said, to find that Whitman had some problematic views on race relations. In his poetry, he was a champion of equality — and equal rights — for blacks and women, generations ahead of his time. Privately, however, this abolitionist and champion of Abraham Lincoln was, as Valerie put it, "a free soil type." (As Whitman himself might say, he indeed contradicted himself and contained multitudes.)

In his verse, somehow, he was unbound by the bigoted views of his time.

"He wrote his higher self," she said.

Whitman's passionate calls for equality, democracy and love for all things on earth, the Nuzzos said, are vital for America in 2017.

"It is so pertinent today," Kim said. "For democracy to work, people have to care about each other."

Nineteenth century America, of course, was a difficult time to be a gay man. While the love and longing, sensuality and sexuality in poems like "I Sing the Body Electric" have inspired generations of lovers, Whitman himself was isolated by his sexuality.

"Walt had a very lonely existence," Valerie said.

In their research, the Nuzzos found a list Whitman kept of the men he'd had one-night stands with, and found evidence of his heartbreak when the love of his life, Peter Doyle, abandoned Whitman under pressure from his family to live a straight life.

The play — which Kim first performed in Fruita, where the Nuzzos now make their home and run Zephyr Stage — will be performed at the vaunted Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland Aug. 7 to 11. That festival performance could help give it a long life on stages around the world. The more people they can share Whitman with, the better, for the Nuzzos, who have taken to calling themselves "Whitman missionaries."

"What triumphed was the poetry itself, that he would live on in a river of voices," Kim said. "That's us. It's left to us."

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ‘Multitudes,’ presented by Zephyr Stage

Where: Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale

When: Wednesday, Aug. 2, 7 p.m.

How much: Free, donations accepted

More info: The performance will be followed by a talkback and a champagne toast; http://www.thunderrivertheatre.com

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