“When the war began, Whitman was despondent, but the violence of those years seemed to strengthen and clarify his faith in democracy, a faith that would take on a transcendent dimension.” I read this passage from Jet Black Sunrise’s playbill, quoted from Ed Simon’s New York Times article “Why We Will Need Walt Whitman in 2020.” It felt unclear at first why this article was important as I looked around the theater. There I sat in the front row with the stage littered with mannequin arms, broken sewing machine parts, fabric, and newspaper unsure what kind of performance laid ahead of me. Then the house went black, the sounds of rainfall filling the space, and Michael Fegley entered into his role as The Traveler.
The one-man show, Jet Black Sunrise, features Walt Whitman’s poetry, not in a formal reading, but in many interesting ways through its set design, script, and performance. The show brings fresh creativity from America’s most renowned poet to Bethlehem with every line of the show derived from the poem “Song of the Open Road” from Leaves of Grass (1855). Michael Fegley transports the audience through his wonderful performance of self-reflection about one human’s journey. The Traveler struggles to face the reality of his world as he reminiscences on moments of happiness, while at the same time, he is reminded of the horror of war. With every story The Traveler shares about his past, the more connected you feel to his inner turmoil and although some questions of existence may not be answered, he takes control of his own journey. As he picks up the pieces of the set, he assembles his story, facing his grave reality and climatically sharing with us the Jet Black Sunrise Tale of 412 young men that died in battle.
There were many moments of the show that completely surprised me but one, in particular, was when The Traveler jumps to the floor underneath the seats, revealing two pieces of rope attached to the bleachers. He then pulled the rope as far as he could while yelling:
“Still I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women,
I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them, I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.”
There were gasps, wide-eyes, and laughter as he attempted to pull us. The power of his voice and the image of his back facing us will forever be engraved in my memory. I wondered if metaphorically we, as an audience, were burdens and if we resembled the stories he shared about humanity. In amazement, but in fear of actually being pulled by him, I appreciated the creativity of bringing Walt Whitman to life in an unexpected way.
When the lights came back on I sat stunned, unsure of what to make of the show’s impact. I asked myself the same questions posed to the audience and that Whitman asked of himself in “Song of the Open Road.” Who am I? What kind of world do I live in? How can I take control of my destiny? As I sat in the Ice House Theater, I saw a reflection of the world I was living in with newspaper headlines about war, disease, and chaos. The show gives its audience perspective and subtly gives us tools on how to handle some of the chaos in the world today. In many ways, we witness our own tales of the Jet Black Sunrise where violence seeps into our own lives. Michael Fegley did not want to dress as Walt Whitman the man. Instead Fegley embodies the Whitman’s poetic call to grieve for the dead and acknowledge the violence of war.