Walt country: Musical ‘Song to Myself’ celebrates America’s diversity

No holds bard: Theater group Compagnia de’ Colombari will perform a tribute to Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” titled “More or Less I Am,” at Brooklyn Public Library on May 18 and at Fort Greene Park on May 26.
Stephen Bateman

Sing a song of ourselves!

An international theater group will perform its musical, multilingual take on Walt Whitman’s classic poem “Song of Myself” at two Brooklyn events this month, in celebration of the Bard of Brooklyn’s 200th birthday. The Compagnia de’ Colombari show “More or Less I Am,” at the Brooklyn Public Library on May 18, and Fort Greene Park on May 26, aims to remind audiences of Whitman’s vision of America, which highlights diverse individuality and also community spirit, according to the show’s director.

“Whitman talks about the greatness of the individual and the community and he interweaves these two, so there’s a declaration of interdependence,” said Karin Coonrod. “It’s important for us to heed the call that in our birthright was the coming together of the individual and the community. He starts the poem with the pronoun ‘I’ and ends it with the pronoun ‘you.’ ”

Coonrod said she was struck by the lyricist’s egalitarian approach to America’s diversity.

“Whitman wrote democracy on the page by having people next to each other. The opium eater, the five friendly matrons, the president, and the guy who’s a convict,” she said.

During each hour-long show, the group will recruit a few audience members to perform parts of the poem, so that Whitman’s words will ring out through the voices of different types of people.

The 15 actors will also perform verses translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and Coonrod hopes that audience members can read sections translated into Chinese, Persian, and other languages. This section demonstrates that Whitman is a poet for anyone who wants to build a home in the New World — a message that is especially important during a time of political hostility towards immigrants, she said.

“This is thinking of him as the poet laureate of the Americas. Having so much Spanish in our community, I wanted to insert some political challenges here,” she said. “At this time when immigrants are considered lesser than or there’s a fear of the other that’s being stoked.”

The show also features classical music, songs inspired by Whitman’s time, including a sea shanty, and a few verses by two modern-day poets, who respond to the Bard in their own words.

The latter section demonstrates how the country is still working to make Whitman’s embrace of differences a reality, a challenge the poet recognized when he wrote his famous piece, according to Coonrod.

“He’d been smelling what was happening in America with this greed that was growing. Freedom was being replaced by greed, and success of smaller and smaller numbers [of people], and I think that this disturbed him greatly,” Coonrod said.

Overcoming the country’s divisions remains an uphill battle, but poets like Whitman offer comfort when we are lost for words., she said.

“When we don’t know what to say we just have to go back to poets — who are our teachers — and spread out the word with joy,” she said.

“More or Less I Am” at Brooklyn Public Library [10 Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, (718) 488–1000, www.bklynlibrary.org]. May 18 at 2:30 p.m. Free.

At Fort Greene Park [At the steps near Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street in Fort Greene]. May 26 at 7:30 p.m. Free.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
With strong music I come: “More or Less I Am” features classical music and a sea shanty, as well as Whitman’s words.
Stephen Bateman

More from Around New York

>