Now That ‘Bradass87’ Is Chelsea: A Q&A With Playwright Claire Lebowitz

by John Stoltenberg

Claire Lebowitz conceived a documentary theater piece called Bradass87 and crafted the script from primary sources—including Bradley Manning’s own online chats and instant messages, in which he used the handle Bradass87. Because of recent news events that amplify the currency of Lebowitz’s already fresh-from-headlines play, I invited her to join me in an in-depth Q&A by email to discuss, among other things, the significance of her main character’s gender change. I sent her three substantive questions, and she wrote back three riveting and rousing answers—about the incarcerated soldier now named Chelsea Manning, what’s next for Bradass87, the role of theatrical art in politics…and what the United States may be about to do in Syria.

John Stoltenberg: As I watched Bradass87 on Saturday, August 17, in DC, I was very aware that Private Manning was to be sentenced in just a few days—a tense real-time suspense that loomed over the real-life events unfolding onstage. I admired your play enormously, as you know, and I wanted to make sure my five-star review went online right away (I called Bradass87 “an audaciously up-close and first-person portrait” that brings “this brave young man to life with a depth of understanding”).

At the time I could not have anticipated two extraordinary first-person texts that were soon to become public: First, on Wednesday, August 21, came Private Manning’s powerful post-sentencing statement (which I believe should be reprinted in every U.S. history textbook from now on). The next morning, August 22, came Private Manning’s startling statement “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female” (which has provoked an outpouring of responses both pro and con).

What went through your mind as you learned of those two dramatic developments? What do you make of them? What effect do you think they will have on future iterations of Bradass87?

Claire Lebowitz: Bradass87 has always been a living document, and I see these two statements as reiterating and clarifying points that are present in the play and in previous statements Chelsea has made in public and in private. What I am struck by in these two statements is how Chelsea has consistently appealed to our highest, most moral selves. She has acted in a way that reflects our perceived values as Americans. The Declaration of Independence was a radical, revolutionary document written during a time of Enlightenment. Chelsea Manning perhaps is our new Enlightenment hero of the Information Age (Chase Madar, The Passion of Bradley Manning), taking the values our nation is said to be founded on to heart, and reflecting them back to us.

She said [August 21] after being sentenced to 35 years in prison (the harshest sentence for a journalistic source ever):

I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

This simple statement begs a series of soul-searching questions: Why do we live under the assumption that American lives are more valuable than other peoples’? What exactly makes us “exceptional”? What free society overclassifies information to justify illegal wars for profit? How can a functioning democracy with a free press overprosecute the messenger, rather than reviewing the crimes revealed and bringing the real criminals to justice?

In the statement made the following day [August 22] asking the world to support her in becoming her true self, she challenges us to confront our limiting assumptions of identity and simply asks us for what she needs—support. Considering how much she clearly thinks of us, the American people (in contrast to how those in power might view us), she deserves our support, as she has supported us and challenged us to “become our true selves.”

In terms of the play, I’m considering having the audience reading the statement made August 21 from the screen before the play begins. For someone who was treated so badly for being who she is throughout her life, her ability to identify with others and feel responsibility for the actions of her country is extraordinary. So often in this statement she uses the term we: “We have forgotten our humanity,” “We consciously elected to devalue human life in Iraq and Afghanistan,” “We elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.” I imagine the entire audience reading the statement from a screen like a mass mea culpa and an invocation of this individual who is locked away but we are bringing into the room. In terms of the trans statement, in the play we watch this young person struggle with not being able to express their true self, which I believe provides some sorely needed context to a discussion that is too reduced to who’s using which pronoun and could reach forward into a deeper truth about us all through the theater’s power to identify with, instead of separating from.

Stoltenberg: After those breaking-news statements, I looked back at the script you shared with me of the version of Bradass87 performed in DC, and I was surprised by how much rich context was in it that very much foreshadowed Chelsea Manning’s announcement—this passage especially:

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’. 8 months ago if you’d have asked me whether I would identify as female I’d say you were crazy, that started to slip very quickly, as the stresses piled up….

For whatever reason, I’m uncomfortable with my role in society in particular—I went on leave in late January/ early February and…I cross-dressed, full on. Wig, breastforms, dress—the works. For a few days I blended in…no one knew. The first thing I learned was that chivalry wasn’t dead. Men would walk out of their way and open doors for me, it was so weird. I was referred to as ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Miss’ at places like McDonalds (hey, I’m not a fancy eater). I took the Acela from DC to Boston, I rode the train, dressed in a casual business outfit. I really enjoyed the trip!  It was…an experience I won’t forget…99.9% of people coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan want to come home, see their families, get drunk, get laid…I…wanted to try living as a woman, for whatever reason. I don’t know, I just kind of blended in…I didn’t have to make an effort, it just came naturally, instead of thinking all the time about how I’m perceived, being self-conscious, I just let myself go…well I was self-conscious in a different way, I was worried about whether I looked pretty, whether my makeup was running, whether I spilled coffee on my expensive outfit.

I remember that when writing my review, I made a conscious choice to stop that quote after “I behave and look like a male, but it’s not ‘me’” —because I thought the rest would be a distraction. I see now that I omitted something not peripheral at all; it was actually a central story point in your text. But to be honest, I was also wary of provoking the nasty flame wars I know to be going on between political activists who view transwomen as really “men” and political activists who counter that such views are “transphobic.” Well, as you likely are aware, that highly charged controversy is all going on now around Chelsea Manning anyway, and suddenly she has become its lightning rod (which in my view really is a distraction, because if she should be regarded and remembered as a poster person for anything, it’s for her bravery in exposing the U.S. war-and-deceit machine).

I’m curious to know your thoughts on all of this—on Chelsea, the controversy, the future of Bradass87—not only as the playwright but also as a longtime Manning supporter and as what transactivists today call “cis” (meaning, in your case: a female-born woman).

Lebowitz: Originally when I started working on the project, the trans narrative was a much larger part of the story. From reading the Manning/Lamo chat logs, it is so pervasive and such a huge part of how Manning saw herself situated in the world. From speaking to many ardent supporters and getting statements from the lawyer that Bradley would like to be referred to as “he” and Bradley till he could move onto the next phase of his life, it seemed that there was so much at stake with the trial ongoing, and perhaps it was just something that she was questioning while deployed and not a core part of her identity issues. I minimized it through development, but that section that you quoted seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful passages, that I really missed when it was taken out, so it was put back in. For me it is the one moment that she is free from confinement, when she is remembering this moment that she felt comfortable—and like herself. I just love how she describes it.

It was a delicate balance of not ignoring this thing that she was clearly struggling with and making sure it was not used as an excuse or the “reason” that she had to act. I was committed to making sure that the lens that we view the act of leaking from is that of suppression of information and illegal imperialist wars, and not taken out of context as just a confused young gay man under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with an axe to grind against the military.

In fact Bradass87 comes off to me as the opposite of confused; she knew she was a woman inside—”No one knows who I am inside”—and also felt so strongly that “information should be free” and “it’s important that it gets out, it might actually change something.” It is the world that is confused—how should we live in it? Like Bradley says at the beginning of the play, “I wish that things were black and white like the media and politicians presented […] it’s all shades of blurry gray”: Multiple things can be true at the same time; one can be intelligent, principled, and moral and also have a condition called gender dysphoria.

When I was in court a few weeks ago, one of the psychiatrists who testified said about gender identity, “[It’s] how we define our world and what role we serve in it at this point anyways. I think maybe some point in the future, gender won’t matter as much. At this point, it’s very much a defining part of who we are and how we function. Maybe someday it won’t matter so much, but gender is still seen as a core issue of identity and how we interact in the world.” I like this idea, that someday the way we interact in the world will not be so limited to only how our bodies present us.

I wrote Chelsea a letter that day saying, “I have tried myself to transcend gender at different moments in my life and feel increasingly stuck in a box as I get older where people treat me a certain way (dismissive) because of their perception of me based on looks. In some ways I can see where being a woman inside allows you to empathize and feel connected to the powerless and oppressed. I’m often astounded by the lack of empathy and compassion displayed in hegemonic pervasive white male culture (the one that we all live in and holds us captive).”

Stoltenberg: One of the reasons I love theater is that better than any other art form, it can communicate and convey character: meaning who we see a person is by the actions they choose. Theater is literally the “seeing place” where we are invited to witness and interpret and understand other human beings acting “in character”—in relation to themselves, one another, and society at large. Theater as a cultural artifact thereby illuminates, for us as individuals and as a species, the complexities and simplicities of how to be human.

I believe this is the sense of character that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to when he said, 50 years ago: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today I would add: “…not be judged either by their sex assignment at birth or by their chosen gender identification”—though I realize that’s by no means a popular conception.

Which brings me back to Chelsea Manning.

I sense that in the minds of a lot of people, there is an awkward disconnect now between who they understood Manning to be as Bradley and the public figure they’re now trying to wrap their mind around who has asked to be called Chelsea. And yet, as I see it, Manning’s core character is completely continuous, uninterrupted, in the sense that this is the exactly the same individual who took certain specific actions by which we can recognize, interpret, and judge (for better and for worse) the content of this person’s character. In other words, something nutty seems to be going on here that seems to have something to do with prior conceptions of how people think about a man’s character-revealing actions and how people think about a woman’s character-revealing actions. People seem to think there’s supposed to be some great division between those value frameworks, and Chelsea somehow leapt from one into the other, so now everyone is flummoxed.

What are your thoughts on all this—in particular, how do you yourself see the character now known as Chelsea Manning and how you are considering and weighing that character as a theater artist with an eye to the next production of Bradass87?

Lebowitz: One of the things that attracts Chelsea to me as a character and was overwhelming to me when I saw her testify in court in December and February is that she is entirely “herself,” if that makes any sense. Over the process of her confinement and the trial during the last three years, I feel that she has matured in terms of her historical, political, and philosophical knowledge and also grown into herself in a certain way. When stripped away of everything and pushed to a point where many of us would have broken, she appears to have met the challenge head-on and surpassed it with flying colors.

Everyone in the media should have been prepared for the switch in pronouns and name; it was in the chat logs, it was discussed in court, there was a diagnosis. I suppose there is never a convenient time to come out and for everyone to change the way they perceive something. Did we think she wouldn’t have the courage to come out? Please!

When someone has asthma we don’t deny them an inhaler—why are we threatened by her hormone therapy? This is not new science—hormone therapy has been an accepted treatment for gender dysphoria for a very long time, but we do not see trans people represented very frequently in our culture. Once again she has shown how our media is lacking and we need the context art provides, and to have a discussion that is not entirely sensationalized, reductive, and intellectually insulting like the mainstream media is. She again challenges the rest of us to figure out who we are in reaction. Bigots? Warmongers? Ignorant? She doesn’t think so: “I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” At this moment we are looking at another military action in Syria that 6 percent of Americans support. We know that we were lied into Iraq with media collusion. It’s a lovely thought to think that if we just have the truth—the information we’re not getting—then we would see that no war is worth it, and be able to do something about the next one.

This is why I like the theater: It is the most political, social art form, that could spur an audience into action because they’ve gone through something and perhaps had a transformation in their thinking. This play allows us all to consider who we’ve become in the world, especially in the last ten years, by relating Chelsea Manning’s experience and how she’s been treated. The soldier taking the fall for two failed wars deserves to have her own words heard, and I believe she has a message for us.

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For more information about Bradass87, see its blog or Facebook page or follow @bradass87ows on Twitter.

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