When Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" appeared in 1952, it created a major stir in literary circles with its analysis of social and intellectual issues facing blacks in the early 20th century. Ellison captured the emotions of those who face racism, poverty, bigotry and mistrust.
Now the Studio Theatre is producing the first authorized stage version of "Invisible Man," adapted by Oren Jacoby, directed by Christopher McElroen and starring the impressive Teagle F. Bougere. Like the book, the play is a record of hope, betrayal and the creation of character.
The play begins in the South, where the main character (the Invisible Man is never given a name) graduates from high school and shows promise as an orator. He wins a scholarship to the State College for Negroes and meets the founder of the college, Mr. Norton (Edward Hyland). After two years, he is summoned by the evil president of the college, Bledsoe (Johnny Lee Davenport), who betrays the hero's dreams and sends him to New York with what are supposed to be letters of recommendation.
Instead, those letters keep the Invisible Man from being hired in any decent job. In Harlem he finds employment in a paint factory but is hurt in an explosion, after which he can't work. He is taken in by a kind woman, Mary (Deidra LaWan Starnes), who looks after him until he is discovered by a racially integrated organization called the Brotherhood, which pays him well to speak for them.
|Where: Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW|
|When: Through Oct. 14|
|Info: $35 to $72; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org|
Yet as in the past, he is betrayed, until ultimately he is forced to observe the conflagration of Harlem in massive race riots.
Perhaps the best part of this "Invisible Man" is not the text itself, but the way Jacoby and McElroen have chosen to tell the story. Although there are many people in the Invisible Man's life, they are portrayed by only 10 actors. These superbly talented performers form a tightly knit ensemble, portraying characters from the South and from Harlem, providing enemies and community for the hero.
McElroen incorporated into his production the collage work of artist Romare Bearden, who was a friend of Ellison's. Troy Hourie's set uses metal scaffolding, countless light bulbs and a pock-marked cement wall lit up by Alex Koch's projections to define the hero's Harlem basement home and the world about him.
And the text reflects in its wild mixture of styles and tones the "raw violence and capriciousness" Ellison sought to capture, reproducing the intense feeling Ellison packed into his prose. Clocking in at three hours, the show could seem long, but McElroen seems to direct with the same fiery spirit that drove Ellison, making the play crackle with energy and life.