“Whitman’s own manic enthusiasm might be required to describe the joyous jamboree that occurs when you combine a fiddle, flute, cello, guitar, and steel drum with readers from the audience, an opera singer, the sounds of jets flying overhead and bells ringing at Riverside Church, the guy who played Brother Mouzone on The Wire, and a terribly cute little girl—to name just a few of its many jangly moving parts,” Ian Crouch wrote in the New Yorker when More or Less I Am first swung through in 2010.
Working with Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective of performing artists, American theatre director and Yale Drama School teacher, Karin Coonrod resurrects More Or Less I Am this month, across New York City in celebration of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday on May 31st.
This all came together with lightning speed. My friend, veteran actor and director Michael Rogers caught up with me in February. “Most interested in bringing our production of More Or Less I Am ( a Walt Whitman project) to (Four Freedoms) park and to include our wheelchair poets here on the island as a part of project. Would you chat with (Karin Coonrod) and pass on any info that you think could help?”
Michael Rogers (R) at groundbreaking for the new Roosevelt Island Public Library
“Let me try to be pithy,” Coonrod wrote in her first message to me.
And yes, of course, it made me smile.
Pithy? Let’s be honest, only theatre people talk that way. I love theatre people and gladly jumped on for the ride.
“We have an important music-theater piece called More Or Less I Am, she wrote, “which is drawn from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855 edition). It shouts out the Democracy of the New World, urging its listeners to not be bowed down but rather to lift up heads to see the value of the other in this New World. Whitman was far ahead of his audience and we still have to catch up to understand him. Wherever we have played this piece its audience has often been in tears to hear the words of the prophetic poet.”
More Or Less I Am In Performance
At age 36, Whitman bridged the gap between existentialism and the language of the common man during a time, much like the present, when America was in danger of coming apart at the seams, reeling through Reconstruction in the decades immediately after the Civil War
When no one was really sure what it was to be an American,” Whitman defined it with his autobiographical free verse touring the human landscape.
Rogers was a core part of the 2010 performances, although conflicts will prevent his taking part, this year.
“In developing this piece I would say that we ( Colombari ) listened to our own Mannahatta — (Whitman’s term for the sense of “my city” ed.) — in each of us,” Rogers told The Daily. This made us bring our own unique selves to what Whitman was evoking. As a result the show brings Whitman’s depth into the contemporary consciousness.”
But why Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island?
“I have been to Roosevelt Island several times, always in consideration of Whitman mingling with Roosevelt and (Park designer Louis) Kahn… It wants our performance to be played there!” says Coonrod. “Roosevelt’s four freedoms and the elegance of Louis Kahn’s design also want Whitman’s words to be sung out to the city.”
Next step, hook Coonrod up with Four Freedoms Conservancy’s Director of Strategic Partnerships Madeline Grimes.
“If it can be done, she’ll be your resource,” I promised.
It was never more true. In less than a month, More Or Less I Am was a go for Four Freedoms Park. And free!
“We’re super excited as well,” Grimes said.
Her boss, CEO Howard Axel joined in:
“Four Freedoms Park Conservancy is excited to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth with Compagnia de’ Colombari’s More Or Less I Am. “I can think of no better location for a performance celebrating the ‘poet of democracy’s’ vision for an inclusive society. I hope many Roosevelt Island residents will join us at this free event.”
“Compagnia de’ Colombari’s More Or Less I Am is an explosive music-theater piece from Whitman’s lightning-strike poem Song of Myself,” Coonrod reminds us. “Whitman calls forth our humanity now—as he did in 1855—to a polarized country.
“More Or Less I Am is a declaration of interdependence. We aim to take this piece all around New York, to Washington, DC and to New Orleans to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth.”
But before all that happens, we get to be showered in its unifying passions, here in New York.
All Scheduled 2019 Performances
Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, Compagnia De’ Colombari is presenting a series of performances of this adaptation from Whitman’s his first major work.