Local Production of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning Provokes Trans Controversy
Some members of Philadelphia’s live arts community have co-signed an open letter raising concerns about a local production of the 2012 play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.
The Inis Nua Theatre Company production is the American premiere of the show, which tells the story of Chelsea Manning, the transgender United States solider who was convicted in 2013 of providing thousands of confidential United States Embassy emails to Wikileaks, the organization that relies on anonymous sources to turn over government information for publication.
Manning began transitioning while serving in the Army and was approved for hormone therapy last year while serving a 35-year sentence in federal prison. The controversy over the Inis Nua production stems from Manning’s status as a trans woman.
The open letter was penned by Amy Smith of Headlong Dance Theater and trans playwright MJ Kaufman, both of Philadelphia, and signed by 18 others, including John Jarboe from the city’s gender-bending Bearded Ladies Cabaret. It is addressed to the company as a whole and Tom Reing, the founder and director of Inis Nua, whose mission is to present “the most provocative theatre from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales,” according to the company’s website. (Tim Price, the playwright of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, is Welsh.)
“We the undersigned are a collection of theater artists and advocates who care deeply about the representation of trans people on stage,” begins the letter. “We write this letter not to chastise you but to try to create some basic guidelines for future productions that you or other theaters take on when working with trans themes.”
The missive takes issues with a number of aspects of the Inis Nua show including the use of the name “Bradley Manning” and photos of Manning pre-transition in marketing materials and lobby displays.
“These choices communicate a lack of respect for Manning’s gender identity and have real implications on trans people’s lives,” the letter-writers say.
Also cited are some of the reviews for the show, which use the pronouns “he” and “him” to refer to Manning as well as the name “Bradley,” which, say the co-signers, reinforces “the transphobic idea that Manning is not a woman and suggesting to the public that it is acceptable to disregard trans people’s chosen names and pronouns.”
The letter further points out that no trans people are involved in the show, something they say is “unacceptable.” This concern mirrors the growing issue of “transface” in Hollywood, in which some have likened the idea of a cisgendered — or non-trans — actor playing a trans role to a white actor appearing in blackface to play a black character. The creators of the Amazon show Transparent fell under similar criticism for casting Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role of a trans woman.
The writers also offer some guidelines for future productions, including a request that the company not “exploit trans stories to be ‘edgy…'” (The full text of the letter appears below this article.)
Reached by phone on Wednesday morning, director Reing said he had not seen the letter. Later, he called us to say that he meant no offense and that he’d take the suggestions under consideration.
“The play was written during the trial,” Reing told us, pointing out that Manning had not transitioned at the time of the script. “In my director’s notes, I refer to ‘Chelsea’ the whole time and use feminine pronouns and also say this is a piece of history.” (Reing’s full director’s notes appear after the letter below.)
But Kaufman is unimpressed with Reing’s response, calling the decision to use the name “Bradley” and the photo of Manning pre-transition “transphobic.”
“There are lots of creative ways to work around using the photo and name that the person has asked not be used any more,” says Kaufman. “Using them shows a lack of imagination.”
Reing admitted that he “should have been more aggressive” in finding trans actors for the show.
“But I am very pleased with my cast now,” he said. “We are very sympathetic to the story, and I don’t think that’s bad.”
Reing later told us that he didn’t produce the play to be “edgy.”
“The company’s mission is to produce contemporary plays from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales,” he said. “This is a Welsh play and a good, award-winning story by a playwright I wanted to produce. I was focused on the incident of leaked cables and that the US Government is currently imprisoning a whistleblower who leaked information that was done in our name.”
As for the reviews that have been using male pronouns to refer to Manning, Reing had this to say: “I do not have control over what a reviewer writes and it did upset me that male pronouns were used. My director notes and publicity all refer to Chelsea.”
Below, the full open letter followed by Reing’s director’s notes.
Dear Tom and Inis Nua:
This is an open letter. We wanted to collect some of the thoughts and conversations that are happening in our community right now, mostly in private contexts, prompted by your production of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning”.
We the undersigned are a collection of theater artists and advocates who care deeply about the representation of trans people on stage. We write this letter not to chastise you but to try to create some basic guidelines for future productions that you or other theaters take on when working with trans themes.
We noticed that your production uses Chelsea Manning’s given name and includes marketing and lobby display images of her pre-transition. These choices communicate a lack of respect for Manning’s gender identity and have real implications on trans people’s lives.
At least five reviews that we could find used “he/him” pronouns and a given name for Manning further reinforcing the transphobic idea that Manning is not a woman and suggesting to the public that it is acceptable to disregard trans people’s chosen names and pronouns.
This is the fifth theatrical production we’ve noticed to use Manning’s incorrect name and pronoun so it is not an isolated incident and part of a larger problem.
The fact that Manning’s whistle-blowing actions took place before her public announcement of trans identity is no excuse for not respecting a trans person’s chosen name and pronoun.
Additionally we noticed that no trans people seem to be involved in this project. For an ensemble cast with multiple actors playing Manning this is unacceptable. Here are some guidelines we recommend you consider moving forward.
1) Nothing about us without us (a phrase coined by the disability rights movement). Please don’t produce a play about a trans person without any trans people involved. A post-show panel does not count. Trans people need to be involved in the creation of work about trans people. You shouldn’t produce a play about a trans person written by a cis playwright, directed by a cis director and with an all cis cast, without any trans presence. Telling our stories without us risks falling into harmful stereotypes. In particular don’t support work about trans women unless you are also going to support work by trans women. Especially with regard to Manning, very few of the theatrical productions about her are written, directed or performed by trans women.
2) Please don’t exploit trans stories to be “edgy” and only show tragic trans characters. There are trans parents, trans accountants, trans teens, trans bus drivers in our city and there should be as many plays about them as there are about Chelsea Manning. Tragedy and ordinariness are all possible. Why not just take a character in a play that’s not about trans people and hire a trans actor and make that role a trans person?
3) We are in a state of emergency in this country with trans lives in danger constantly. This year saw a record number of murders of trans people, in particular trans women of color. We live in a culture of violence and theater can actually help raise awareness of trans stories and trans lives. But only if it’s done with sensitivity and awareness. Perpetrating harmful stereotypes has huge consequences on people’s lives.
4) If you need help “finding” the trans artists in our community, just put out a casting call or open call for new plays, etc. There are many trans theater artists in our city who would love to be offered an opportunity to direct, act, workshop, or have their play produced.
5) For more in Chelsea’s own words see: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/chelsea-e-manning and https://www.amnesty.org.uk/chelsea
Ezra Berkeley Nepon
Azure D. Osborne-Lee
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky
I saw this play in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival in 2013. Two days later, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. A day after that, it was announced that she wanted to be known as Chelsea Manning.
Think of the play as a piece of history, albeit some of it fictionalized and from not too long ago. While acknowledging Chelsea Manning and her desire for transition, this play focuses on her early years of frustration, confusion, isolation and oppression. It focuses on her and her action to expose the horrific events she saw, an action that America has simply moved past and mostly forgotten.
That is not the case for Chelsea Manning — she will be eligible for parole in 2021. The full sentence ends in 2048.
For a fictionalized biography, playwright Tim Price did his homework. Written while Manning was awaiting trial, it strikes me that no American playwright that I know of took on this story. It took a Welsh playwright, to hold up a mirror to America and it shows us in a very cynical light. It takes a culture on the outside to give us a perspective we may not want to see.
So here it is, a story by a Welsh playwright about America.
It is not a nice story.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.