BWW Review: INVISIBLE MAN in New England Debut at Huntington Theatre Company
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by Nancy Grossman
Adapted for the stage by Oren Jacoby, Based on the novel by Ralph Ellison, Directed by Christopher McElroen; Set Design, Troy Hourie; Costume Design, Kathleen Geldard; Lighting Design, Mary Louise Geiger; Projection Design, Alex Koch, IMA; Sound Design, David Remedios; Fight Director, Robb Hunter; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane
CAST (in alphabetical order): McKinley Belcher III, Teagle F. Bougere, Brian D. Coats, Johnny Lee Davenport, De'Lon Grant, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Jeremiah Kissel, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Julia Watt (Fight & Dance Captain)
It has been sixty years since Ralph Ellison published his first and only novel, Invisible Man. Weighing in at just under 600 pages, it is a heavy tome both in terms of avoirdupois and material content. It has been called a masterpiece that changed the shape of American literature and most definitely the way in which black characters were portrayed in fiction. For the first time, it has been adapted by documentary filmmaker Oren Jacoby into a play, which is now having its New England debut at the Huntington Theatre Company, in a co-production with the Studio Theatre of Washington, DC, where it opened in September. Director Christopher McElroen was also onboard when the Court Theatre in Chicago hosted the world premiere a year ago.
Teagle F. Bougere reprises his role as the nameless title character and gives an epic performance. The play runs close to three hours with two intermissions and he is onstage for its entirety, serving as narrator and protagonist. By agreement with Ellison's estate, Jacoby has not written a word of dialogue, using the author's language verbatim, albeit with abridgement. Bougere opens with the first five words of the prologue, "I am an invisible man," and proceeds to explain what he means by that. As his character reflects on twenty years of memories, his past comes alive in his mind and unfolds before our eyes.
Starting his journey in the 1930s with roots in the Deep South, the invisible man's story takes him from an all-black college, from which he is expelled, to New York where his frustrating search for employment lands him in a factory that manufactures white paint. After an explosion, he ends up in the hospital where he undergoes electric shock treatment. When he is released, his life is affected by a series of new acquaintances and opportunities, and he becomes an organizer for social change for the Brotherhood in Harlem. He believes that he is making a difference, but the real world is an unforgiving place that eats away at his innocence, his beliefs, and his resolve. With each setback, each defeat, and each awakening, the young man comes to understand that he is invisible in this society and finds safe haven in a Harlem basement.
Jacoby manages to shrink the word count without shrinking the scope of Ellison's opus which, the playwright asserts, "is the whole African-American experience encapsulated in one guy's story." His scene selection maximizes the theatricality inherent in invisible man's tale, and the production's artistic designers collaborate to expand the visual images beyond the confines of the proscenium stage. In particular, Alex Koch's projections and Sound Designer David Remedios virtually bring the audience from their seats in the B.U. Theatre to the ivy-covered college campus, the mean streets of Harlem, the political rallies, and countless other settings recalled by invisible man. The otherwise industrial set by Troy Hourie and 1,369 light bulbs arranged by Lighting Designer Mary Louise Geiger convey a gritty, hardscrabble existence. Kathleen Geldard's costume designs evoke not only time and place, but class distinctions, as well.
Bougere carries the weight of the play on his shoulders and never falters. In each stage of the character's life, he inhabits the appropriate physical and emotional layers as if it were his own experience. His performance is complemented by nine incredible actors and actresses in the ensemble who each play multiple roles with nary a false note. Bostonians Johnny Lee Davenport, De'Lon Grant, and Jeremiah Kissel make their impact respectively as the nefarious college president, a disenchanted youth leader of the Brotherhood, and Brother Jack, the white leader who recruits invisible man to the organization.
McKinley Belcher III increases the level of intensity as Ras, a fanatical neighborhood organizer who challenges the Brotherhood. The softer side of the street is well-represented by Brian D. Coats (shopping cart man) and Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mary Rambo, a nurturing mother figure to invisible man. Edward James Hyland plays opposite ends of the white spectrum as a college trustee who sees the future in the young man, as well as one of the stiff bureaucrats who controls the Brotherhood. Joy Jones and Julia Watt complete the ensemble.
The powerful themes of Invisible Man are peppered with moments of lightness and levity. As in the novel, there is an infusion of music. It would be impossible to tell this story without paying homage to the blues. Artists such as Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie are among the influences who add to the texture of Ellison's American tapestry. However, this is ultimately a play that is laden with the intensity of serious, dramatic vignettes, some of which are meant to discomfit. It is possible to feel the audience virtually tense their shoulders or shrink in their seats on a couple of occasions when the house lights come up and the fourth wall comes down. This is theater in the raw and there's no escaping what we are meant to confront. Message received.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (The cast of Invisible Man)