Writer/performer Tim Cusack and director/choreographer Patrice Miller reimagine Walt Whitman’s iconic ode to human anatomy from the perspective of a 50-something, HIV-positive gay man. I Ping the Body Electric foregrounds Cusack’s queer, aging, “diseased” bodily presence as the focus of the performance, in the process disrupting and challenging normative valuations concerning “masculinity,” “youth,” and “health” and rewriting the agenda of abnormality pre-written on bodies such as his.
Crafted during COVID lockdown, the text Cusack delivers while executing a movement score co-created with Miller adheres to Whitman’s syllabic structure and line count but uses specific words and images from the original poem as jumping-off points for a radical rewiring of the “body electric.” This new 21st- century remix includes references to AIDS, Larry Kramer, Nina Simone, and Donald Trump, among others—explicitly historicizing the text as the product of a particular sociopolitical/cultural moment. By confronting and interrogating the performer’s own erotic attraction to men of color, the piece addresses head-on Whitman’s objectification of African bodies as signifiers of strength, beauty, virility, and suffering in the original—recentering the 19th-century poet’s emphasis of physical appearance onto that of intellectual and artistic achievement in an act of reparative reclamation.
A queer ritual, I Ping ... is a meditation on the nature and politics of intimacies. that invites the audience to enter into a communitas to communally confront the joys and sins, the tension and ease, the pain and reclamation of the body unique to Whitman and American queer desire.
As a piece in development created in the yearlong moment of the COVID19 pandemic, I Ping the Body Electric is the simultaneous remembrance of the AIDS crisis and an evolving record of our current pandemic catastrophe. Both crises made weapons of our bodies and brought the politics of desire to the forefront, asking us what intimacies do we need and which do we exploit.