Theater Review: Seeing the “Invisible Man”

An adapter has to make choices, and this theatrical version of Invisible Man focuses on the novel’s most straightforward narrative strand.

Invisible Man. Adapted from the novel by Ralph Ellison by Oren Jacoby. Directed by Christopher McElroen. Sets by Troy Hourie. Costumes by Kathleen Geldard. Lights by Mary Louise Geiger. A co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company and the Studio Theatre. At the Boston University Theatre, Boston, MA, through February 3.

By Bill Marx

Teagle F. Bougere and Deidra LaWan Starnes in the Huntington Theatre production of INVISIBLE MAN. Photo: T Charles Erickson.

Since its publication in 1952, the riches of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man have been dazzlingly transparent. On its publication, it was recognized as a major work of American literature, and the book remains an impregnable achievement. (Though Ellison’s disdain for “the protest novel” aroused controversy in the ‘60s.) The text’s exploration of bedrock issues in the American experience—democracy, race, and technology—is dramatized through an embarrassment of authorial voices, so there is no question of getting all of the story’s vast linguistic life on stage. As Ellison scholar John F. Callahan, who helped Oren Jacoby with the stage adaptation of Invisible Man, said to The New York Times, “You’ve got to pick and choose carefully. You can’t do the novel. You have to do a version of the novel.”

Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of the book in a production that is earnest, sprawling, visually sharp, and usually involving. Yet, for all its admirable allegiance to Ellison’s words, the evening comes off as theatrically blunt and heavy-handed. We are given prose rather than Ellison’s lyricism.

An adaptor has to make choices, and the approach here is to focus on the novel’s most straightforward narrative strand: holed up in a Harlem cellar, our African-American anti-hero remembers how he came to discover his tragicomic invisibility. He recalls as an idealistic adolescent taking part in a sadistic boxing match organized for the amusement of rich, white men who run his southern home town, overcoming an unceremonious departure from college to go up north, and then surviving an explosion in the basement of a paint factory followed by the possibility of a lobotomy. Once he recovers, he eloquently protests the eviction of an elderly, black couple and is hired by and then exploited by a Communist-like organization called The Brotherhood. When his stalwart friend Tod Clifton is killed by a white policeman a race riot breaks out—he is chased by militant blacks into his basement, where he listens to Louis Armstrong’s great version of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” on his phonograph: “I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible.”

As in the novel, each encounter contributes to the invisible man’s disillusionment with society, another allegorical step toward his rejection of collectivities and embrace of a radical individuality. The book delivers that message, but it does much more than that. The problem is that, as he fast-forwards through Invisible Man, Jacoby clings to the story’s didacticism far too tenaciously, to the point of dangerously thinning out Ellison’s characterizations, making it seem as if his figures are there simply to teach the “invisible man” a lesson.

Ellison’s genius was to dramatize the dazzling inseparability of pain and exhilaration in the lives of African-Americans, to recognize the artfully conflicted forces in their speech and music. That is one reason jazz is so central to the novel. To his credit, director McElroen plays lots of terrific music, but he and adaptor Jacoby don’t see that the Invisible Man itself is a kind of funky jazz opera in prose—each character takes center stage (sometimes for a prolonged period, sometimes briefly), elbowing the protagonist aside as he or she “sings” a version of the blues, gospel, etc. It is an unruly, multi-voiced celebration of the African-American experience that sets out to challenge the limits of the documentary.

Given that theater audiences are uncomfortable with abstraction, the emphasis on the book’s realism is understandable: photographs of the period are projected throughout the show. But predictably, as the novel becomes increasingly surreal, especially during the climactic race riot, the adaptation loses considerable steam and impact. The conflagration flies by on stage in an incomprehensible few minutes (if you haven’t read the book, I am not sure you will know what is happening) leading to an abrupt and somewhat confused dramatic wrap-up. The encounter with destructive chaos is essential because, after facing the fury of the rioters, the protagonist articulates one of the book’s most important ideas: “. . . knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Teagle F. Bougere in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of INVISIBLE MAN. Photo: Charles T Erickson.

The paradox is that the “invisible man” is an isolated individual gifted with an “absurd” vision of American pluralism. Everything to him is interconnected—there is no white without black, no exhilaration without agony, no love without hate, no American culture without jazz. Besides zipping through the race riot, Jacoby also excises the protagonist’s final bizarre dream about bridging the races, of knitting together the past and the present.

Thus the book’s mysterious evocation of American identity—its raucous fantasia on the creative furies of fragmentation—is minimized, leaving the ending as little more than “a lesson learned” about the admirable battle to become an individual. That fits in nicely with what contemporary audiences will tolerate, but it tamps down on the book’s dreamy iconoclasm. Surrealism began with the notion that freedom of the imagination could transform life, an idea that Ellison fuses with a peculiarly American vision of self-sufficiency and creativity.

So this theatrical version of Invisible Man is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go as far as it should, at least to satisfactorily answer the question of why the novel should have been put on stage in the first place. If you aren’t going to get at its jumped-up poetry, its surrealism, its prophetic vision, why dramatize it? The neatened-up production at the Huntington Theatre, a co-production with Washington’s Studio Theatre, is usually compelling, at least until the Brotherhood arrives, featuring a cast that digs gleefully into Ellison’s language when given a chance. McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Jeremiah Kissel, Joy Jones, and Johnny Lee Davenport fight against the inevitable flattening of the book’s rounded characters. Like the story’s harried protagonist, the staging is always on the run, mindful that there is more to fit in.

As the protagonist, Teagle F. Bougere does a fine job of evoking the character’s psychological development, moving with deft nuance from innocent student to ultra-cynical organizer. That he doesn’t pull off the ending, even after breaking through the fourth wall, is the script’s shortcoming. This ambitious stage version of Invisible Man proffers limited but heartfelt testimony to a seminal book: just don’t make the mistake (a la Classics Illustrated comics) of thinking that it will substitute for the real thing.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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