The stunning new adaptation of “Invisible Man” currently playing at Studio Theater brings Ralph Ellison’s legacy novel into a whole new light, including literally. A ceiling full of light bulbs rises upward or lowers ominously, lighting the stage and the main nameless character.
His opening monolog demonstrates Ellison’s mastery of interspersing socially poignant messages with everyday idioms and images. In Oren Jacoby’s stage adaptation, the novel’s introspective passages are perfectly matched by the main character’s constant struggle to define himself and secure an identity. However, no matter how hard he tries or how fervently he grasps, he gets no closer to his sense of self than a fleeting unseen phantom or allusion. He may as well be sitting alone in a hovel, which is how we first see him as he tells his tale.
That “Invisible Man” would be Ellison’s signature achievement is not hard to understand— scholars and academics have been busy unwrapping and discovering its myriad assortment of concepts since its 1952 publication. Embedded, yes, but at the same time, the issues have an avant garde, smack -in-the -face stinging reality. In one early scene, the main character has a dream of opening a large manila envelope only to discover another envelope, then another and another before he gets to the one sentence that haunts him and reverberates to anyone transfixed by the story. The novel is similarly multi-layered, filled with embedded messages exploding with social commentary, all well delineated in this production and orchestrated to the hilt.
The script balances the main character’s interior struggle with a theatrical momentum for his journey. It doesn’t get stuck in the character’s emotional turmoil as he is unjustifiably cast out of school, finally recognizes how much he’s been duped, then stands up for a cause to help poor elderly neighbors being evicted, only to have that genuine caring act usurped by a nameless organization striving for solidarity.
The character’s emotional state in his life journey is all over the place as he is constantly being jerked around. But the script aided by the director’s trust in the story maintains a sure and steady pace through the emotional mine fields for a well-grounded performance.
Director Christopher McElroen effectively used multi-media to help depict the historical roots of the play, including the unmistakable reach of slavery. Words depicting actual bills of sales for Negro slaves were projected on the back wall while actors portrayed the very moving transactions. Ellison made it clear that those festering shackled wounds have a far reaching impact through the generations which McElroen heeded at every step. Whether through the use of masks for the white mob scenes, or the Romare Bearden’s collage-style imagery to depict the piss-poor conditions of Blacks in the rural South, the production is well steeped in the legacy of that peculiar institution.
As wondrous as the script is, Teagle F. Bougere brings it to light and life pulling off this slugfest of a role – and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. Bougere performed the character in the debut production at Chicago’s Court Theater earlier this year, and we are fortunate to witness his inspired performance here. He maintains a fascinating command of the character’s quest going from an innocent and beleaguered trusting student, to dazed and confused laborer after shock treatment, to charismatic socialist leader who turns belligerent after being rebuffed, to the unseen being of conscience, giddy from draining high powered wattage from the New York power grid. Bougere was a member of the resident company at Arena Stage in the 90’s so it’s great to witness his national and international acclaim and accomplishments.
Bougere is ably supported by some of the finest actors in this region and beyond: Johnny Lee Davenport as Dr. Bledsoe portrays mannerisms depicted in the novel with a mesmerizing performance. In the novel, Bledsoe “fixes his face” like a malleable mask to grin on cue and Davenport’s leer is a sight to behold. Bledsoe, and yes, the name reels with interpretive significance, provides some of earliest glimpses of Ellison’s warrior wit as he reprimands the young man who has the “mistaken belief that knowledge brings dignity” and “you don’t have to be a simple fool to succeed.”
Deidra LaWan Starnes delivers rock-solid performances in her assortment of roles, particularly as Mary Rambo, the helpful matron of Harlem’s poverty-stricken intelligencia.
Brian D. Coats is a powerhouse seen on stage and film, as are two of the other ensemble characters, Edward James Hyland and Jeremiah Kissel who bring an assured professionalism to every role they touch.
Still, it’s the Invisible Man who is on stage for the duration, getting punched around while trying to be a dutiful, diligent credit to his race. Bougere rolls with the punches, gets up and keeps striving, as seen in an early scene of the “Battle Royale” where he is humiliated while trying to deliver a commencement speech after being set-up in an impromptu boxing match. Bougere shows a deft nuance of his character, making you wonder, did he really get confused in a punch-drunk fog or did he intentionally spit out the phrase replacing “social responsibility” with “social equality”? Bougere carries off the ambiguity with powerful naturalism.
Lighting is crucial and Mary Louise Geiger makes magic happen dimming the massive collection of ceiling light bulbs to golden yellow or ratcheting them up to blazing white as needed. Set designer Troy Hourie who also worked on the Chicago set brings a multidimensional feel to the space that converts from an oppressive hole to a college office, a share cropper’s yard, a paint factory basement, even to a makeshift boxing ring with sparkling creativity. Video projections by Imaginary Media help tell the story, and Kathleen Geldard’s assortment of costumes reach back to the genteel south where Southern gents, exquisitely dressed in white gloves, top hats and tux tails, commit acts of inhumanity with unbelievable ease.
This is an important work, with urgent messages as timely now as its release sixty years ago. Invisible Man relates that embedded shrapnel bits of racism permeate the American experience, and the effects are subtle, sublime and explosive, sometimes simultaneously. Ellison’s piercing novel, and this perfectly matched production reflect how impossible contradictions can happen inside of us and all around.
Invisible Man, Adapted for the Stage by Oren Jacoby, Based on the Novel by Ralph Ellison, Directed by Christopher McElroen, Invisible Man: Teagle F. Bougere, Trueblood/Ras/Ensemble: McKinley Belcher III, Grandfather/Burnside/Peter Wheatstraw/Ensemble: Brian D. Coats, Preacher/Bledsoe/Brockway/Ensemble: Johnny Lee Davenport, Ralston/Tod Clifton/Ensemble: De’Lon Grant, Mr. Norton/Brother Hambro/Ensemble: Edward James Hyland, Slave Girl/Mattie-Lou/Old Woman/Ensemble: Joy Jones, MC/Emerson Jr./Brother Jack/Ensemble: Jeremiah Kissel, Singer/Kate/Mary Rambo/Ensemble: Deidra LaWan Starnes, Stripper/Emma/Woman in Red/Ensemble: Julia Watt.
Set Design: Troy Hourie, Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger, Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard, Sound Design: David Remedios, Projection Design: Alex Koch, Fight Choreographer: Robb Hunter, Stage Manager: John Keith Hall, Assistant Stage Manager: Jeremiah Mullane, Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel.
Produced by Studio Theatre, Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Hilton Als . New Yorker
Doug Rule . Metro Weekly
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Derek Mong . BrightestYoungThings
Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Sidney-Chanele Dawkins . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner