MAY 11, 2021 — Bradley Freeman Jr. sees a lot of sunny days ahead. And like the famous children’s show theme song says: He’s on his way to where the air is sweet—because he’s already found his way to Sesame Street.
The senior communication major is set to graduate this month and already the biggest of his dreams is being realized. Two months ago, he began working with Sesame Workshop and its new initiative, the “ABCs of Racial Literacy” as part of Coming Together, the workshop’s ongoing commitment to racial justice. The Coming Together initiative includes a “racial justice educational framework” meant to help parents engage with their children on the topic of race, and includes tools and research to help build racial literacy.
Freeman's character Wesley Walker (far left) helps parents engage with children on racial topics. Photo: Zach Hyman | Sesame Workshop
Bradley has been studying and teaching himself puppetry for most of his life, enamored first with Barney, the purple dinosaur, then the hybrid model of “Blue’s Clues,” and later Muppets like Elmo and Kermit. His grandparents gave him the first season of “The Muppet Show,” a four-DVD set that at the time cost $40.
“I had an Elmo birthday party and I loved Elmo. I still do,” Bradley said. “There’s something special about meeting Kermit—you know you can go up to him and shake his hand and have a conversation. I think that magic is really there with Big Bird. He exists and he can walk around with you. I get to work with him tomorrow which is insanity.”
Bradley funneled his love into practice, hooking up a video camera to a television and practicing the expressiveness of puppetry while playing with movement and scale. He became a puppeteer at age 5, and by 10 he knew he wanted to pursue puppetry for his career.
“I’ve been training myself since I was 10,” he said.
In 2018 he applied to participate in a Sesame Workshop international puppetry workshop. He was one of 30 selected out of hundreds of applicants. He spent three days in New York City, training and networking with his childhood heroes while they scouted out potential talent for the future.
In late 2020, Bradley sought feedback on his demo reel showcasing his puppetry skills from his childhood hero, Martin Robinson, the actor and puppeteer behind Telly Monster and Mr. Snuffleupagus. Robinson loved the reel and shared it with Matt Vogel, the voice of Kermit and also Big Bird.
Bradley was then asked to audition for the role of a new Muppet, 5-year-old Wesley Walker. Wes and his father Elijah (also known as Eli the Weather Guy) are both Black, and through father-son conversations they explore race, modeling for viewers how to discuss tough topics such as appreciating the differences in people, melanin and skin color, and racism.
“I was like Donald Duck smelling a pie—like my legs were just floating on air,” Bradley said motioning with his fingers to indicate walking on air after hearing the invitation. “I thought at the time, man, when I don’t get this, this is going to be such a great story to tell.”
The story got even better when he got the job.
“I remember reading for Wes and connecting with him immediately,” recalled Bradley, who is Afro-Latino and grew up in a multigenerational household that included his mom, his now 12-year-old brother and his grandparents in Brownsville. “Wes is everything I wanted to be as a kid. I was very shy as a kid and quiet, but he’s able to talk to anyone.”
Wes’s father, Elijah, reminds Bradley of his own grandfather—someone who was always there for him. “Sesame Street” has never been afraid to push boundaries, he said, and beginning discussions about race with children at a young age is the right time to do it.
“The best way to not be racist is to be anti-racist,” Bradley said. “It’s not about being silent. We have to teach kids about the problem and we have to teach them the solution so they can practice it.”
With graduation on the horizon, Bradley is juggling a lot between monthly trips to New York City to film the show, his virtual studies during a pandemic, and working his second job as a performer at the San Antonio River Walk mainstay Howl at the Moon, a place known for its dueling piano players.
Bradley said he’s enjoyed his time at UTSA where he feels like he got the “real” college experience he wanted after spending two years in community college where he also worked a 9-to-5 job.
“I had a couple of really great professors. They weren’t really instrumental in puppeteering, but they were reassuring and caring, and they cared about education,” Bradley said. One teacher in particular took an interest in Bradley and helped him navigate the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a tricky transition because he preferred in-person classes.
John Milam, a Ph.D. student in English, taught technical writing in the spring of 2020. Bradley said he learned great lessons in the class, including character building, how to empathize, and how to be relatable—all things he now applies to Wes and his work on “Sesame Street.”
Milam said he approached teaching technical writing a bit differently and tried to infuse a social justice lens in his course material with a heavy emphasis on ethics and data literacy.
“I ask myself: How can I ensure that students aren’t stressed out, that they aren’t overworked?” Milam said. “I tried so hard to bring as much compassion to my classroom as possible.”
Milam said he remembers Bradley and encouraging his student to stick to what he loves.
“‘Sesame Street’ has been on the ground level all this time teaching friendship and truth, compassion and love,” Milam said.
Last year, when COVID forced the university to extend Spring Break by a week, Milam’s class was never able to meet in-person again. Bradley said he felt bad because he had missed the class before the break, so he later reached out to Milam. He was met with nothing but compassion and understanding, he said, two things he hopes to help spread through Wes.
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