By Ann Marie Swan

Fruita playwright and poet Valerie Haugen Nuzzo’s motivation to write the Walt Whitman-inspired one-man play “Multitudes” arrived at her door in a box, delivered by a stranger. This stranger was acquainted with a friend of Haugen Nuzzo’s deceased mother, and agreed to carry over some of her mother’s things – flip-flops, a set of china and a box of papers that included a diary of Haugen Nuzzo’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather. It was in this diary that she learned about some shameful family history. She learned that her ancestors had owned slaves in the 1860s in Victoria County, Texas. 

At first, Haugen Nuzzo didn’t know what to do with this hellish gift that she received while deep in her grief. In addition to the death of her mother, Haugen Nuzzo struggled after the recent deaths of other family members within a few weeks of each other. But once she opened this diary, this welcome distraction, Haugen Nuzzo entered an earlier time of Civil War stories and music, a time when poetry was a larger part of people’s lives than it is today.

Here, she became reacquainted with Whitman, the radical poet, abolitionist and volunteer civil war nurse, who would take his place in American literature with “Leaves of Grass,” originally published in 1855, and “Drum-Taps,” published in 1865. Over and over, Haugen Nuzzo devoured Whitman’s writings on the promise America held, and his later disillusion because of those denied this promise based on their gender or color or immigration status.

She felt Whitman’s tenderness when he wrote about loving both women and men. And, like a bystander, she witnessed Whitman’s inability to relieve the suffering of soldiers while they took their last raspy breaths in his arms in “The Wound-Dresser,” gritty and detailed without over doing it or glorifying war. (“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, /Straight and swift to my wounded I go.”)

Whitman’s signature free verse and works that bent toward prose, open and playful, settled into Haugen Nuzzo. The cadence offered a steady rhythm, a structure that set the pace of her days.

“Whitman seemed to want my attention,” she said.

A divine connection was made.

“We realized we had enough material and the message of universal love and acceptance that Whitman wanted to communicate,” said Haugen Nuzzo, who co-wrote “Multitudes” with her husband, Kim Nuzzo, whom she directs in the play. “We felt sort of a call for him to come to life.”

And “Multitudes,” which considers slavery, death, sexuality, the Civil War and democratic ideals, was born.

Whitman’s words that reached out and really grabbed Kim Nuzzo are from the “Ten Commandments.” “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals,/ despise riches, give alms to every one that asks,/ stand up for the stupid and crazy,/ devote your income and labor to others.”

Kim Nuzzo said Whitman’s words “still echo loudly as being something we’d be better off paying attention to.”

Salida resident Craig Nielson, another fan of Whitman, read “Leaves of Grass” on a backpacking trip years ago and said the poems shifted his consciousness and changed his life. Nielson, one of the organizers of the Chipeta Rising Celebration, saw “Multitudes” as fitting in nicely with the events that will honor Ute peacemaker Chipeta and the renaming of her mountaintop. The commonality between Whitman and Chipeta are their shared values.

“Walt Whitman’s message was one of unity and the interconnectedness and diversity of life and the human condition as a universal concept,” Nielson said. “I also think its a great example of European American culture that, hopefully, will resonate with Ute tribal members who will get a chance to see it.”

“Multitudes” is the latest labor of love for the Nuzzos, both veterans in the world of theater. Kim Nuzzo is a resident actor with Zephyr Stage at Calvalcade in Fruita. He is a visual artist, poet and addictions counselor with his business, The Art of Recover. He has performed many roles for Hudson Reed Ensemble, starred in the film “Bumps Jackson: The Last American Ski Bum” and played King Hamlet in Thunder River Theater Company’s acclaimed production of “Hamlet” in Carbondale.

Haugen Nuzzo is the executive artistic director of Zephyr Stage. She has written several plays, and co-wrote and performed in TRTC’s “Passionate Collaborators: George Burns & Gracie Allen” with Lon Winston. Valerie was the founding company member and associate artistic director of TRTC for 20 years, and performed in more than 50 productions there.

The Nuzzos live with “Multitudes,” day in, day out, and continually, lovingly, change it, just like Whitman did with “Leaves of Grass,” which started with 12 poems and evolved to more than 400.

“We have an opportunity to keep growing it and keep it alive,” Haugen Nuzzo said.

She also said she “tries not to direct at home.”

Chipeta and Whitman also shared a sort of tragic sincerity. Chipeta prevented more bloodshed but ended up a refugee in her own land. Whitman thought his poetry could stop the Civil War.

Kim Nuzzo said: “If people would just realize Whitman’s poems, they’d realize we are all the same. His message is one of inclusion. Everyone.”

Inclusion and belonging thread through much of Whitman’s work. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” which considers the sacredness of the body in addition to the soul, Whitman writes: “Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?/ Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as you,/ Each has his or her place in the procession.” 

Another quality that Whitman and Chipeta share is they both meet F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of first-rate intelligence because they both had the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Whitman and Chipeta both took personal risks in their quests for unity among all peoples. Both allowed conflicting thoughts to live inside them. Whitman’s famous quote from his poem “Song of Myself” speaks to these two special people who lived during some of the same times, under different circumstances, in different parts of the country. It’s a message that remains timeless and relevant. Whitman writes: “Do I contradict myself? /Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

“Multitudes,” a play by Valerie Haugen Nuzzo and Kim Nuzzo will start at 7 p.m. Oct. 8. Cost is $10 at the Salida SteamPlant Event Center. The performance is part of the Chipeta Rising Celebration,