“I am an invisible man”, begins the renowned Ralph Ellison 1952 novel, as well as the current play adapted from it, “because people refuse to see me”. The monumental literary work about race and class in America was a groundbreaking effort that in its sixty year existence has never been out of print, and justly so. Now, in its reincarnation as a three-hour drama with a cast of ten playing more than two dozen roles, "Invisible Man" emerges as an unforgettably moving production by Huntington Theater Company (with Washington’s Studio Theater). The adaptation, word for word from its source, is by Oren Jacoby, who manages to distill all the strength of the narrative while jettisoning most of the more florid passages of the source material, with few misguided exceptions (such as the term “palaver”, which rings untrue). In this stripped-down era of intermission-less, set-less and sometimes barely scripted solos and two-handers, this three-act effort is a sight for sore derrieres.
The native son protagonist, invisible even to the extent of remaining nameless (both in this version and in the original book), first appears in his basement in a border area of Harlem; the rest of the play takes place in his memory. He relates how his grandfather, on his deathbed, exhorted him to “affirm the principle” of our nation. He receives a scholarship to attend a Negro college in the South (under humiliating hazing-like circumstances). Initially, he admits to being ashamed, not of his slave ancestry itself but of his having been ashamed about it, and speaks of the need for humility, which he dutifully displays as he drives one of the college’s Great White Founders around the college environs. He unwisely ends up at the log cabin home of a disreputable incestuous father and an equally notorious bar/brothel, causing him to be sent by the head of the college to Harlem, the “city of dreams”, with letters of introduction in hand, presumably to earn his tuition for his final year. There he encounters treachery, and all sorts of city folk, some street smart, some not, but all with pointers for him on how to live his life.
Some of the advice he is given by his fellow blacks about how to coexist with white people may seem like aphorisms out of context (“show them what we want them to see”, “play the game but don’t believe in it”, “don’t hope, make it that way”) and perhaps applicable more to the era in which they were written. The input from the white people he meets, however, sadly endures and is even intensified today, especially when one reflects on the recent national elections (“our job is to tell them what to think”, “take advantage of them…but in their own best interest”). Though he is initially embraced, at least figuratively, by a group called The Brotherhood (an obvious allusion to the Communist Party of the 50’s), he grows to discover how shallow these waters are from statements by well-meaning left-wing activists (describing him as “primitive”, and their black “Brothers and Sisters” as “some of the finest people I know”). Ultimately, it becomes clear that race relations are not high on their list of priorities at that time. Asked how it feels to be free of illusions, his answer is “painful, empty”; but he also feels “more human, less an exile”, even as he describes a Brother’s cause of death as “resisting reality”.
The play is full of many such heartrending truths, but the underlying truth of this production is the powerhouse performance of Teagle F. Bougere, a very visible, wondrous Everyman. The supporting cast, every one of them superb, includes McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Johnny Lee Davenport, De’Lon Grant, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Jeremiah Kissel, Deidra LaWan Starnes and Julia Watt. In perhaps the juiciest roles, Coats, Belcher and Davenport stand out, but individually and as an ensemble, they’re all awe-inspiring. The same could be said for the painstakingly precise direction by Christopher McElroen. The (literally and figuratively) electrifying Scenic Design by Troy Hourie is like an essential part of the ensemble, and the Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger, Projection Design by Alex Koch and Sound Design by David Remedios (reflecting Ellison‘s love for American music, especially jazz) are all flawless.
Beyond racism, this is of course about the loss of innocence of this invisible man (as well as ours), and how he and we are manipulated and even exploited by political, religious and social activist hypocrites. When he realizes this, he is invisible no longer, acknowledging he should be true to himself within the larger community: “When I know who I am, I’ll be free”. As the play ends, he states “the end was in the beginning”, reminding us how he began this memory play by quoting his grandfather‘s deathbed words regarding affirming the principle of our nation. Facing the audience, he confronts us with these words: “It is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”