‘Bradass87’ at Universalist National Memorial Church by John Stoltenberg

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 Braadss87 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 17th—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.

Ara Morton (left) and Matt Mezzacappa (Bradley Manning).
Ara Morton (left) and Matt Mezzacappa (Bradley Manning).

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 directionOne 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 thatBradass87 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.

Bradley Manning, U.S. Army.
Bradley Manning, U.S. Army.

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.

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

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. I really would have liked to have been in town to have seen this piece, so I can’t say much about the work itself. I applaud anyone who takes on such an interesting and controversial topic. However, I take great issue with what the writer of this review says about Bradley Manning.

    “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.”

    No. He didn’t.

    Let’s be clear on who and what Bradley Manning, the actual person, is and what he did. He went well beyond being a whistleblower when he dumped thousands of documents and communiques he had no earthly ability to go through in total. He disseminated cables and reports he couldn’t have completely read, and ones he, perhaps, but I still think more than likely, couldn’t fully comprehend.

    How do I know this?

    Along with the material he gave away that implicated the U.S. government in many dubious acts (the ones that angered him), he also leaked 250,000 United States diplomatic cables, and 500,000 army reports. This goes beyond anything any lone individual could possibly read in a lifetime. News organizations had to hire teams of employees to go through these materials just to parse out anything useful in these documents. Had he only released the information that most angered and upset him I might be able to call him a whistleblower afraid his complaints would get lost in the chain of command, but what he actually did went well beyond that.

    It is still up in the air whether or not his disclosure of the documents actually did, or didn’t, hurt anyone stationed somewhere in the world. However, he hurt the United States. He released information that went well beyond all of the grievances he had. His actions weren’t noble. They were vindictive, irrational, and hurtful. He saw documents that disturbed him…and then harvested loads more completely unrelated to his initial grievances, and, again, some were not even remotely related to anything he read. He spent months, perhaps a full year doing this AFTER the initial discoveries. Whatever the fine line is between espionage and whistleblowing is Bradley Manning crossed it, and stepped well over it.

    You, Mr. Stoltenberg, don’t get to whitewash history and make him a hero of your own creation, as much as people who want to completely demonize him want to whitewash their own parts of history and just call him a devil. Bradley Manning is a fascinating and flawed person who may have done something good, but also did a whole lot of idiotic damage…a lot of which is still yet to fully unfold as domestic and international events develop.

    Manning didn’t deserve a lot of the treatment he got in life both before, during, and after his military service. The “character” of Manning in this performance piece sounds very intriguing. The “person” is another story altogether that has yet to be told. Still, I know his only intention wasn’t to save other people’s lives. He may say that was the case, but more than a little bit of cold revenge was mixed in as well, and that is not a virtue.

    Again, please don’t take my comments as a statement about the theatrical piece itself.

  2. Actor25, is that why Daniel Ellsberg has said, so many times, “I am Bradley Manning”? Is that why, still, to this date, no one has presented any evidence that Manning harmed anybody? Is that why Manning went first to the NYT and the Washington Post, neither of which exhibited any interest? Is that why Julian Assange and WikiLeaks spent months going through the documents redacting names? Is that why they also asked newspapers for help in redacting names, so as not to harm anybody?

    Our government is committing crimes on a global scale, and you say Bradley Manning harmed people??


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