Private Manning Goes to Washington

By Andrew Andrews

Billy (E. James Ford) argues with Aaron Schwartz (Matt Steiner) before stacks and stacks of classified documents in manilla folders.

Private Chelsea Manning was convicted of leaking over 700,000 classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks, including many photographs and other proof of abuse of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan—including women and children—by the U.S. military. Currently serving a 35-year sentence in a maximum-security prison, Manning is simultaneously applauded and detested as a whistle-blower by those that know her story.

Private Manning Goes to Washington is the latest play from the dynamic team of Stan Richardson and Matt Steiner, together known as The Representatives. It is the story of hacktivist Aaron Schwartz’s imagined attempt to garner widespread public support—and ultimately, a presidential pardon—for Manning, by launching an Internet meme from a play developed with the help of an estranged childhood friend named Billy. Although a work of fiction based on the sole fact that Schwartz once requested records about Manning under the Freedom of Information Act before committing suicide a few years later, this play could make you believe that the entire series of events (or at least, those not set in the future!) had actually taken place.

Whether you applaud or detest Manning, the play delivers an important message about the role of whistle-blowers in a free society. Steiner plays a very convincing Schwartz, not only in appearance but in mannerisms as well: even if you don’t know anything about the real-life man who inspired the character, you can immediately relate his technical-genius archetype to some famous computer geek that you’ve met or seen or heard. And, in the role of Billy, E. James Ford serves well as Schwartz’s reluctant convert, eager to get back on Schwartz’s good side after a traumatizing event many years earlier, but with conflicting opinions about Manning’s actions.

The Representatives have developed a well-earned reputation for rapidly delivering a “radically intimate” theater experience through immersive settings and unconventional spaces, and the delivery of Private Manning in the basement rec room of a residence in the Meatpacking District really draws the audience into the show as if they were flies on the wall in Schwartz’s private quarters. Our only critique is that the dialogue feels more dense with (apparent) facts than two people would normally express during a real conversation. Considering, however, that the Representatives aim to present their work as soon as possible after it’s written—raw, without much tweaking—it’s hard to fault them in that context. We’d definitely encourage you to catch Private Manning Goes to Washington if you have the opportunity. You’ll be entertained, for sure, and if you haven’t spent much time thinking about whistle-blowing before, you certainly will after the show.


Andrew Andrews attended Private Manning Goes to Washington at The Studio @ 345 in Manhattan on Saturday, December 3, 2016 @ 8:00pm to write this review.