As a child growing up in Brownsville, Bradley Freeman Jr. was fascinated by puppets. Adept at practical effects, he watched TV shows including sesame street, Bear in the Big Blue House and Between the lions with wide eyes and wondered how the plush figures moved.
“There was something special about these real puppets interacting with real children,” Freeman, 22, told the Fluent during a recent interview. “They could reach out and shake Elmo’s hand or hug Big Bird or Barney.”
But when Freeman’s grandparents bought him the original The puppet show on DVD, he went from fascinated to addicted. The collection included behind-the-scenes bonus features that showed how the puppeteers brought Kermit the Frog and Gonzo to life.
“I had never seen this before,” he said. “That’s when I knew, ‘Oh, my God. This is a job. I want to do this job.’ The magic became more substantial for me because it turned into something possible.
After graduating from high school in 2016, Freeman moved to Alamo City, where he attended San Antonio College to study radio, television, and film for a few years before transferring to the University of Texas to San Antonio to study communications.
Freeman, who will graduate next month, said his first post-graduation plans involved landing a job and working his way to “financial stability”. This way, he could pursue his dreams of becoming a professional puppeteer.
“It ended up coming sooner than expected,” he said.
Freeman’s career as a puppeteer dates back a few years.
In 2018 he sent an audition tape for an international workshop that sesame street was in New York to find talented young puppeteers. He was one of 30 people chosen from 400 applicants to study with industry legends such as Matt Vogel (Kermit the Frog), Peter Linz (Ernie), Marty Robinson (Mr. Snuffleupagus) and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph ( Abby Cadabby), among others.
“I ended up learning from all my heroes,” he said. “Being in the same room with them and being taught by them was an absolutely magical experience.”
Last November, Robinson emailed Freeman to check in and see how he was doing. During their exchange, Freeman sent the sesame street player his puppet demo reel for comments. The next morning, he received emails asking if he wanted to audition for a pair of new Sesame Workshop characters.
“I didn’t know what they looked like, but I got their biography and started thinking about what voice I could give to these characters,” Freeman said. “Then they made an appointment with me, sent me a puppet from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and then I auditioned on Zoom. I kept thinking, ‘Man, when I don’t get it, that is going to be a great story to tell.”
But he got the job.
Last month, Freeman, who is Afro Latino, debuted as a new puppeteer with Sesame Workshop. He was chosen to play and give voice to new puppet character Wesley Walker, a five-year-old black Muppet who, along with his father Elijah, helps families talk about race and racism.
Currently, Wesley and Elijah are featured in an online-only series called ABC of racial literacy. In one episode, Wesley explains to Elmo why people have different skin color. “It’s because of the melanin,” says Wesley the Muppet. In another episode, Wesley, Elmo, and a few other friends sing a song called “I Am Somebody” about the beauty of being different and standing up against racial injustice.
sesame street has never shied away from addressing heavy topics like grief, disability, homelessness and divorce in an age-appropriate way. His overall effort to tackle the problem of being black in America, however, is something new. Freeman hopes Wesley can be a catalyst for family conversations about race and racism.
“I have so much to learn myself, so I feel like I’m experiencing it with families all over the world,” he said. “I feel the same sadness and anger and fear that Wesley sometimes feels, but by the end of the script, I end up feeling better. I am so proud to be part of this conversation. If we can mention it, then we can handle it.
While some may not think a 3-year-old should be exposed to the problem of racism at such a young age, Freeman sees it differently. Society must do more than just be “non-racist”, he said. It’s time to “turn the tide and go anti-racist”.
This is the message that Sesame Workshop wants to convey with its new initiative. A 3 year old is not too young to learn to celebrate differences.
“We need to get ahead and tell kids, ‘Yes, people look different, but they’re no less valuable,’ he said. “We can teach them about inclusion , love, recognition and representation.”
To see all the videos and for more resources on Sesame Workshop’s new racial justice initiative, visit sesameworkshop.org/comingtogether.
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