Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is the first selfie poem. Like the camera phone portraits glutting social media, “Song of Myself” is an unabashed proclamation of identity and celebration of being. But whereas most selfies feature the subject holding a camera up to a mirror to capture their own hot bodz, Whitman holds his poem up as the mirror, reflecting America and her vast, complicated beauty.
Robert Michael Oliver’s re-imagining of the classic, Song of Myself: The WHITMAN Project, portrays the broad cross-section of American life found in the 60 page poem. With a dynamic performance that incorporates film, music and images, Oliver amplifies the poem’s themes of populism and universality through a multimedia experience.
In his recitation of “Song of Myself,” Oliver embodies the many moods of the poem’s narrator. Looking like Whitman with a length of grey hair curling into a full woodsman’s beard, Oliver manifests the poem’s breathless, madcap exuberance. He revels in its fleshy tones and sensual cadence, strutting around stage in a full spring rut, taking extra delight in the phonetic mischief of the word naked.
No stranger to staging poems, Oliver performed a collection of Edgar Allan Poe works in Embodying Poe during the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. His actor’s ear for rhythm and pause draws out the natural pacing of “Song of Myself” making it sound a lot more gripping and vital then it did in high school. Oliver achieves his best acting while impersonating the poem’s lineup of American characters. Civil War soldiers, fugitive slaves, mill workers, deck-hands, lovers and widows, all figures of depth and kinship for Whitman, and Oliver takes great care to give each a voice of their own.
Song of Myself: The WHITMAN Project
by Walt Whitman
80 minutesat Caos on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
As Oliver watches with the audience, he seems to honor Whitman, the Observer above all other versions. Throughout his poetry, Whitman watched and glorified what he saw, recognizing all things as aspects of himself. The film features easily identifiable metro locations, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, a string of row houses, a busy street corner, that draw the audience into the film and invite them to take part in the poem’s ecstatic chorus.
Robert Michael Oliver’s Song of Myself: The Whitman Project plugs the audience into the connecting whirl of Whitman’s words. In a stimulating production of pictures and sound, Oliver turns required reading into a required experience.