As a child growing up in Brownsville, Bradley Freeman Jr. was fascinated by puppets. A follower of practical effects, he watched television programs including Sesame Street, Bear in the big blue house and Between the Lions with big eyes and wondering how the plush figures were moving.
âThere was something special about these real puppets interacting with real children,â said Freeman, 22. Running 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 bonuses that showed how the puppeteers brought Kermit the Frog and Gonzo to life.
âI had never seen this before,â he said. “That’s when I knew like, ‘Oh, my God. This is a job. I want to do this job. The magic has become more substantial to me because it has turned into something that was 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 the Texas to San Antonio to study communications.
Freeman, who is graduating next month, said his initial post-graduation plans were to land a job and work his way to “financial stability.” That way, he could pursue his dreams of becoming a professional puppeteer.
“It ended up happening 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 wanted to New York to find young puppeteer talent. 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.
âI ended up learning from all my heroes,â 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 register and see how he was doing. During their exchange, Freeman sent the Sesame Street play his puppet demo reel for feedback. The next morning, he got emails asking if he wanted to audition for a pair of new Sesame Workshop characters.
âI didn’t know what they looked like, but I got their bio and started thinking about what voice I could give to these characters,â Freeman said. âThen 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, ‘Dude, when I don’t get it, that’s gonna be a great story to tell.’ ”
But he got the job.
Last month Freeman, who is Afro Latino, made his debut 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 ABCs 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 fighting racial injustice.
Sesame Street has never avoided approaching heavy topics such as bereavement, disability, homelessness and divorce in an age-appropriate manner. His global effort to tackle the problem of being black in America is something new, however. Freeman hopes Wesley can be a catalyst for family conversations about race and racism.
âI have so much to learn on my own, so I feel like I’m experiencing it with families all over the world,â he said. âI feel the same sadness, anger and fear that Wesley feels sometimes, but by the end of the script I end up feeling better. I’m so proud to be a part of this conversation. If we can mention it, then we can handle it.
While some may not think that a 3-year-old should be exposed to the problem of racism at such a young age, Freeman sees it differently. Society needs to do more than just be “not racist,” he said. It is time to âturn the tide and become anti-racistâ.
This is the message Sesame Workshop wants to convey with its new initiative. A 3 year old is not too young to learn to celebrate differences.
âWe have to get ahead of the game and say to the kids, ‘Yes, people look different, but they’re no less valuable,’ he said. “We can teach them about inclusion, love, recognition and representation.”
To view all videos and for more resources on Sesame Workshop’s new racial justice initiative, visit sesameworkshop.org/comingtogether.
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