Puppet Protestors: Free Bradley Manning!

Insecurity Theater
By GREG COOK  |  February 23, 2011

Bread and Puppet Theater
Bread and Puppet Theater arrived at MIT Monday night to premiere Manning, its show dedicated to Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old Army private who has been locked in a Virginia military prison since last year, accused of giving thousands of secret American war records and diplomatic files to WikiLeaks.

Bread and Puppet's founder, 76-year-old Peter Schumann — still impish under a mop of gray hair and full beard — opened the performance in MIT's Art, Culture and Technology Cube. He praised "the courageous soldier Bradley Manning, who publicized the truth when the truth did not want to be publicized."

The subject is a natural one for the radical mask-and-puppet troupe, which made its name in the 1960s with plays and street protests critiquing the Vietnam War, before moving to Vermont in the '70s to perform massive outdoor pageants.

"WikiLeaks really depended on this courageous soldier to bring out these hidden truths and horrors," Schumann tells me. "[The fact that] that soldier gets punished severely for his patriotism, that's the logical consequence. That is hidden by having an in-bed-with-the-government media, and therefore not visible to the general public, that's the other typical American situation. So it very badly needs puppeteers and other folks that are noisemakers to make these noises."

Manning is a series of arm-chopping, foot-shuffling, finger-pointing, stomping, writhing, hopping dances, interspersed with the raising and simulated washing of successive banners describing Manning's imprisonment: "23 hours a day intensive solitary confinement," "A 6' x 12' cell," "Denied pillow & sheet," "Every 5 minutes checked by guards," "Col Johnson: 'His treatment is firm fair & respectful,' " "U.S. Academy of Psychiatry 'Isolation as clinically distressing as physical torture.' "

Manning is a companion to the company's Modern Sky, which they performed at the Boston Center for the Arts last month. That paired a haunted dance of cardboard puppets with recitation of a WikiLeaks-released transcript of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Baghdad, which killed a number of apparent civilians.

The last banner in Manning is a quote attributed to Manning himself: "Reaction to video of helicopter massacre gave me immense hope." The troupe of Bread and Puppet volunteers and MIT student performers hopped underneath it, then joined hands and snaked around the stage. As they bowed and the audience clapped, someone in the crowd hollered: "Free Bradley Manning!"

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