Monday, January 21, 2013

Ellison’s Invisible Man on Stage

Teagle F. Bougere and members of the cast of Invisible Man (Photo by Astrid Reiken)

No one has tried to make a movie of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and until now – an adaptation by Oren Jacoby, directed by Christopher McElroen, is currently playing at Boston’s Huntington Theatre – no one, to my knowledge, has tried to put it on the stage either. It’s easy to see why. The staggering 1952 novel is as dense and highly conceptual as a Kafka story, its tone is satirical and its style is surrealistic. It imagines the radicalization of a bright, sensitive young black man (the nameless narrator), who wins a scholarship to a Negro college, as they were then called, by making a valedictory speech at his high school that enthusiastically promotes compliance as a means of bettering the position of the black race. The club that sponsors him is made up of prominent white men who first require him and other promising young African Americans to box blindfolded for the entertainment of the membership. At college, he idolizes the president, Bledsoe, who assigns him the job of chauffeuring an aging white benefactor. At the request of the curious guest, the narrator takes him off the grounds to a nearby black neighborhood, with disastrous results. Bledsoe suspends the narrator, sending him to New York with letters that he says will recommend him to various white members of the college’s board for jobs; having earned his fees for the fall, he’ll be allowed to return to school. The truth, as the narrator learns, is that he’s been expelled, and the letters are condemnatory. He finds work at a symbolic white paint factory, but an explosion sends him to the hospital. He rents a room in Harlem, where he observes an eviction that brings out the orator in him once again. His impromptu speech is so rousing that he finds himself picked up by socialists who give him a generous salary to make use of his talents. Their opposite number is a black extremist named Ras the Destroyer who preaches complete segregation of the races and targets the narrator for his special disdain. The book is a flashback: when it begins, the narrator has finally reached the conclusion that as a black man he’s invisible in white society and that the only way he can live in it (and not be wrecked by it) is to embrace his invisibility.

Author Ralph Ellison
The novel is one of the signal achievements in twentieth-century American literature – it may be the greatest American book of the mid-century – but its tortuous narrative is a catalogue of ideas about race. It lacks dramatic shape – not a problem for a book but certainly a challenge for a dramatist. Honestly, I’m not sure how the hell you’d turn it into a workable play, but Jacoby hasn’t really tried. Invisible Man at the Huntington is a Reader’s Theatre version of the classic text. The Invisible Man (played by a young actor of tremendous stamina, Teagle F. Bougere) is still the narrator, and he recites massive, unwieldy chunks of Ellison’s prose while around him nine other earnest performers in a variety of supporting roles reproduce episode after episode, almost exactly as each appears in the book. Jacoby has transferred almost every major development onto the stage. (Perhaps the only significant omission is the one in which the Invisible Man dons shades and is confused by a number of Harlem residents for a notorious local pimp who is juggling as many identities simultaneously as the narrator has tried on sequentially.) Clocking in at nearly three hours, including two intermissions, the production is recitation, not dramatization.

Troy Hourie’s clever set grounds the play visually in the basement room where the Invisible Man is squatting, lit up by hundreds of light bulbs – part and parcel of Ellison’s controlling metaphor of light and shadow. (The protagonist has found a way to divert energy from Con Edison’s grid without having to pay for it: his invisibility allows him, ironically, to live in a shower of light.) But McElroen’s staging is terribly static; even the set pieces that you expect to generate a little visceral excitement, like the boxing match and the eviction scene and the Harlem riot at the climax, are lame. The production relies on Mary Louise Geiger, the lighting designer, to create imitation dramatic moments by blazing the lights to underscore important developments or shift from one episode to another (which is effective the first time and thereafter a cheap theatrical effect, not to mention that it’s an assault on the audience). And the actors are stuck; without dramatic structure or active, motivated staging, all they can do is indicate – which translates in most cases into mugging.  Deidra LaWan Starnes, as the narrator’s warm-hearted landlady, Mary Rambo, is the most zealous mugger, though the style Jeremiah Kissel adopts as Brother Jack, the socialist who spots the Invisible Man’s gifts and invites him into the movement, is particularly baffling. The most inventive actor is Brian D. Coats, who plays (among other parts) Peter Wheatstraw, the first person the Invisible Man makes contact with in Harlem. The most charismatic is Johnny Lee Davenport, who has a regal presence in his scenes as Bledsoe but unfortunately has less to do as the play goes on. Paradoxically, though almost everyone is on stage most of the time, the stultified staging deprives the production of a real sense of ensemble.  I can’t think of a way to make the novel work on stage, but at the very least the material calls for a kinetic production.  Instead it gets a read-through.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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