INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE LEBOWITZ BY JOHN STOLENBERG
“Who is the real Private Manning? Does anyone know? Can anyone know?” Those were central questions in John Stoltenberg’s review of playwright Claire Lebowitz’s documentary theater piece Bradass87, about the Army private sentenced in August for passing secret government documents to WikiLeaks. Lebowitz crafted the script from primary sources—including Manning’s own online chats and instant messages, in which Manning used the handle Bradass87. Stoltenberg called the play “a unique and fascinating front-row seat to history. Built around Manning’s own words and artfully compiled from documents on thepublic record, Bradass 87 delivers an audacity compiled from documents on the person portrait that reveals how deeply the maligned young soldier himself was distressed by the question Who is Bradley Manning?”
Manning’s answer, in part: “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 wayway too easy to marginalize, I don’t like this person that people see. No one knows who I am inside.” After Manning announced her genderchange, identifying as female and changing her name to Chelsea, Stoltenberg, a longtime profeminist activist and writer, interviewed the playwright about the incarcerated soldier, the play, and the role of theatrical art in politics.
John Stoltenberg: I watched a performance of Bradass87 in Washington, D.C., just a few days before Private Manning was to be sentenced-a tense real-time suspense that loomed over the real-life events unfolding on stage. At the time I could not have anticipated two extraordinary first-person texts that were soon to become public: First, on August 21, 2013, came Private Manning’s powerul post-sentencing statement. The next morning came Private Manning’s startling revelation, “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, andI see these two statements as reiterating and clarifying points that are present in the play and in previous statements Chelsea has made inpublic 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 refelcts 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. After being sentenced to 35 years in prison-the harshest sentence for a journalistic source ever-she said: “I will serve my time knowing that sometimesyou 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 conceivedin 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 people’s?
- What exactly makes us “exceptional”?
- What free society overclassifies information to justification 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 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.
J.S.: After those breaking-news statements, I looked back at the Bradass87 scriptyou shared with me, and I was surprised by how much rich context was in it that foreshadowed Chelsea Manning’s announcement—especially this:“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 comfortablewith 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.’”
When writing my review, I made a conscious choice to stop thatquote there—because I thought the rest of that passage would be a distraction. I see now that I omitted something not peripheral at all,something that was actually a central story point in your text: “Eight 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, asthe 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 D.C. 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 percent 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-concious, 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.”
To be honest, another reason I did not mention Manning’s self-identification as female was that I was 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 Manninganyway, 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 support and as what trans-activists today call “cis” (meaning, in your case: a female-born woman).
C.L.: Originally when I started working on the project, the trans narrative was a much larger part of the story. I knew it is pervasive in the log of chats between Manning and Adrian Lamo (the confident who turned informant). It’s a huge part of how Manning saw herself situated in the world. But from speaking to many ardent supportersand getting statements from the lawyer that Bradley would like to be referred to as “he” and Bradley till he could move on to the next phase of his life, it seemed that therewas 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 minimizedit during development, but that section you quoted seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful passages, one I really missed when
it was taken out, so I put it 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 likeherself. 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 excuseor 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 andillegal 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 wasa 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, one of the psychiatrists who testifies said about gender identity, “[It’s] how we define out 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).”
Theater is the most political, social art form, one 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 10 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.
For more information about Bradass87, see its blog, http://bradass87.wordpress.com, or Facebook.com/bradass87play; or follow it on Twitter@brarass87ows.
This article was excerpted and adapted with permission from “Now That ‘Bradass87’ Is Chelsea: A Q&A with Playwright Claire Lebowitz,” originally published by DC Metro Theater Arts (dcmetrotheaterarts.com).
John Stoltenberg was creative director of the “My strength is not for hurting” sexual-assault-prevention media campaign, which he conceived. He continues his communications- and cause-consulting work through media2change and writes regularly about theater for DC Metro Theater Arts. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg and @media2change.