by John Stoltenberg
(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)
Who is the real Bradley Manning? Does anyone know? Can anyone know? These pressing and compelling questions ricochet today even in mainstream news media, which—more beholden to elites than to accuracy—filter reality but rarely sift out truth. Even among ostensibly progressive pols, Bradley Manning looms as an enigma—because they cannot shake the chastening fact he puts their compromised idealism to shame. (Full disclosure: I have publicly identified myself as a Bradley Manning supporter.) Now comes Bradass87, a theater piece that offers a unique and fascinating front-row seat to history. Built around Manning’s own words and artfully compiled from documents on the public record, Bradass87 delivers an audaciously up-close and first-person portrait that reveals how deeply the maligned young soldier himself was distressed by the question Who is Bradley Manning?
I’m not so much scared of getting caught and facing consequences at this point, as I am of being misunderstood, and never having the chance to live the life I wanted to. I’m way way way too easy to marginalize, I don’t like this person that people see. No one knows who I am inside.
The play is not a polemic meant to persuade doubters and haters. Nor is it simply a piece of agit prop intended to rouse and rally supporters (although excerpts have been performed as street theater in New York City). What Bradass87 actually is—in the version I saw at a staged reading in Washington, DC, August 17—is an astute look through theater into the moral agony of a human being who, in real life and real time, has experienced his own existence as a U.S. citizen in extremis. He could not cut his conscience to fit the country’s war-and-deceit machine. Nor, as Bradass87 makes painfully clear, could he excise his true self to fit standard-issue masculinity. Bradass87 lays bare the convergence of those two points of conflict and resistance in Manning in a way that is nothing short of brilliant.
There is an insight here that could incite. Which is why it’ll never appear on the nightly news.
Claire Lebowitz is the prime mover of Bradass87 (which was the handle Manning used in instant-message chats). The concept was Lebowitz’s, she composed the pellucid script, and she directed the gripping DC reading in the basement performance space at The Universalist National Memorial Church (based on David Schweitzer’s direction of a staging at the Culture Project in New York City and bringing to DC the haunting sound design by Michael Feld and eye-popping video design by Kevin Brouder). The stark set (shown above in the NYC production) represented Bradley Manning’s cell, which came to feel ever more confining.
We’re human—and we’re killing ourselves—and no one seems to see that… and it bothers me. Apathy. Apathy is far worse than the active participation. I prefer the painful truth over any blissful fantasy.
The excellent DC cast featured Britton Herring, Joe Brack, Felipe Cabezas, and Frank Turner, as intimidating officers and coarse guards, and, in the daunting role of Manning, the exceptional Chris Dinolfo, who brought a virtuoso range of passion, pathos, terror, and queer charm. (To watch Dinolfo, in brutal incarceration, suddenly dance to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga—over whose CDs the real Manning secretly recorded a cache of intelligence—was simply a delight.)
Lebowitz served as assistant to Judith Malina, the legendary founder of the Living Theatre, who in 2007 directed a new production of the American classic The Brig, which I was fortunate to catch at the Living’s performance space on Clinton Street. As I watched Bradass87, I could hear, see, and feel echoes of Kenneth H. Brown’s script and the legacy of Malina’s masterful direction. One stage picture was particularly ominous: the small-framed detainee Manning stripped naked, harangued, and shamed by a phalanx of angry hypermacho thugs. Lebowitz had isolated for our gaze the authorized, male-pattern sadism that Manning has suffered. And as we learn vividly from Bradass87, that punishment has effectively been an ongoing Abu Ghraib.
Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong!
What have I done to deserve this type of treatment?!
There actually are answers to those questions in Bradass87. Answers that are a moral injury to Manning. And maybe to us all.
I’m isolated as fuck, my life is falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s overwhelming—I’m not comfortable with myself, I’m in an awkward state and the weird part is…I love my job. I was very good at it. I wish this didn’t have to happen like this. I don’t think it’s normal for people to spend this much time worrying about whether they’re behaving masculine enough. I behave and look like a male, but it’s not ‘me’.
Bradley dissented from the criminal war machine and he dissented from regimental manhood. By rights he was a conscientious objector on both counts, fully entitled in the fullness of his humanity to opt out. But he didn’t know that because no one saw that, no one mentioned it to him, no one gave him the support and counsel that Bradass87 makes desperately clear he needed. So he could not, and did not, save himself. Instead, as Bradass87 shows, in his overweening idealism he did something surpassingly noble: He tried to save America from itself. He tried to rescue our foreign diplomacy from deceit. He actually tried to save other people’s lives.
For bringing this brave young man to life with a depth of understanding that, to my knowledge, no other medium has yet done, this theater-piece-in-progress deserves to live on and be seen.