Racial Issues, Far From 'Invisible' On D.C. Stage

Originally published on October 3, 2012 6:40 pm

On a farm in Waitsfield, Vt., in 1945, a Merchant Marine cook named Ralph Ellison was resting after his tour of duty.

"One morning scribbling, I wrote the first sentence of what later became The Invisible Man: 'I am an invisible man,' " Ellison recalled in an interview for National Educational Television.

He wrote that his protagonist — a Negro, as Ellison always put it — was young, powerless and ambitious for the role of leadership, a role at which he was doomed to fail.

Earnest and naive, the Invisible Man travels from his Southern hometown to Harlem and runs a gantlet of discrimination by whites, betrayal by blacks, and confusion about who he is and whom he must please. The Invisible Man tells his story from a basement apartment, a surreal refuge from a world that has cast him away.

Recently, writer Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen got the blessing of the Ellison estate to adapt the novel for the stage. Their play had its debut in Chicago and is now running at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"Look at this book!" Jacoby tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "It's crazy, you know; it was regarded at the time as an experimental novel, and it's not a piece that you would look at and say, 'Oh, it's a play.' But the question popped outta my head: Has anybody ever adapted this novel as a film or a play? And Ralph Ellison really didn't want that to happen while he was alive. He'd seen too many good books turned into bad movies."

Jacoby says he decided to write the play while he was working on a project about Shakespeare.

"Ellison seemed to understand that kind of rhetoric," he notes. "That, like a great Shakespearean speech where a character is faced with a decision about what to do, there's constantly an argument: Do I do this or do I do that? 'To be or not to be.' Do I go underground, or do I come out and be part of the world? And I felt that that dynamic made this a very theatrical text, and that it just spoke out to me. And I thought, 'Well, I'd better go for it.' "

The production team also faced the challenge of translating the book's visuals to the stage. The play is set in a basement filled with magazines, newspapers and, in the book, 1,369 light bulbs.

"We wanted to really capture the essence of his hole," McElroen explains. "We wanted it to start in darkness with just the voice, and from there a single light bulb comes on. And as he goes through his prologue, we fill the stage with light."

"The idea is that he doesn't ever leave the basement room in the play. It's that these visions, these memories from his past, he's revisiting and acting it out, through his subconscious or whatever way you want to interpret it. And the story of the play is whether they give him the power by the end of the play to leave the hole or not," Jacoby says.

The writers describe one of the most challenging scenes to translate, in which the Invisible Man is invited to give a speech in front of the town's white citizens, but ends up being asked to fight in a battle royale.

"He's blindfolded, put in a ring with other young African-American men and reduced to an animal. To stage that scene with an ensemble of 10 blindfolded African-American actors in white mask was extremely, extremely challenging," McElroen says.

Actor Teagle Bougere, who plays the Invisible Man, agrees with Jacoby and McElroen about the difficulty of that scene.

"That's a case where I think you get a visceral punch in the gut because there is blood, there's a guy falling — there's this overt racism. I believe that is a case in which it really works translating from the novel to the stage. I think that scene works really well," Bougere says.

The play requires stamina from its leading man: In the three-hour drama, Bougere doesn't leave the stage once.

"I mean, I feel so lucky and honored to be doing those words. I wake up in the morning, and I look forward to doing it at night and, on the weekends, five times," Bougere says.

The transition from the page to the stage also works because of a crucial element solitary reading cannot provide: an audience's reactions. Bougere describes how integral the audience is to his own experience of the play.

"It's wonderful. I love the soliloquies and the monologues, and what I am using to activate them is the audience — the way I am approaching this play, I am never there alone. That beginning monologue, what that's about is me asking the audience to bear witness to this journey that I am about to go on. Because I want to get out of this hole, I want to change this, but I cannot do it without this audience," he says.

While the play in many ways transcends race, it also tackles racial issues, something that Bougere says is very deliberate, and, at times, confrontational.

"I think people do feel uncomfortable at times, and I think that's all right," says Bougere.

Bougere also points to one of the most powerful moments of the play — the final monologue about the legacy of racism. During the scene, the Invisible Man goes into the audience, singles one audience member out, and speaks directly to them. Bougere says he does his best to connect eyes with them.

"Christopher [McElroen] in Chicago asked me, he said, 'Do you pick the person ahead of time who you do that last bit to in the audience?' And I told him, 'No, I don't pick the person ahead of time, but I always pick a white person.'"

Bougere reveals that this intimate confrontation with the reality of racism often makes people turn away. He says, "That monologue at the end is an indictment of what has been done to black people by white people, specifically."

Clearly the racial issues raised in Ellison's novel are unnervingly present, even decades later. After Washington, the play moves on to Boston. And playwright Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen say the script is still evolving.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

This next story starts on a farm in Waitsfield, Vermont in 1945, where a Merchant Marine cook named Ralph Ellison was resting after his tour of duty.

RALPH ELLISON: One morning, scribbling, I wrote the first sentence of what later became "Invisible Man." I'm an invisible man.

CORNISH: That's Ellison, years later, in an interview for National Educational Television. He wrote that his protagonist - a Negro, as Ellison always said - was young, powerless and ambitious for the role of leadership, a role at which he was doomed to fail.

Earnest, naive, the Invisible Man travels from his Southern hometown to Harlem and runs a gauntlet of discrimination by whites, betrayal by blacks, and confusion about who he is and who he must please. The Invisible Man tells his story from a basement apartment, a surreal refuge from a world that has cast him away.

OREN JACOBY: Look at this book. It's crazy, you know. It was regarded at the time as an experimental novel and it's not a piece that you would look at and say, oh, it's a play. But the question popped out of my head has anybody ever adapted this novel as a film or a play. And Ralph Ellison really didn't want that to happen while he was alive. He'd seen too many good books turn into bad movies.

CORNISH: That's Oren Jacoby, who, along with theatre director Christopher McElroen, got the blessing of the Ellison estate to adapt the novel for the stage. Their play debuted in Chicago and is now running at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. Jacoby says he decided to write the play while he was working on a project about Shakespeare.

JACOBY: Ellison seemed to understand that kind of rhetoric. And that, like a great Shakespearean speech where a character is faced with a decision about what to do, there's constantly an argument: Do I do this or do I do that? To be or not to be. Do I go underground, or do I come out and be part of the world?

And I felt that that dynamic made this a very theatrical text, and that it just spoke out to me. And I thought, well, I'd better go for it.

CORNISH: The play, like the novel, opens in that lonely basement apartment filled with newspapers and magazines, a phonograph. The Invisible Man has wired his ceiling with light bulb - exactly 1,369 of them, he says. It's an act of sabotage against the power company but also an affirmation. The Invisible Man says, light confirms my reality.

Director Christopher McElroen describes staging that scene.

CHRISTOPHER MCELROEN: We wanted to really capture the essence of his hole. And we don't have exactly 1,369 lights, we're working towards them. But yeah, we wanted it to start in darkness with just the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

TEAGLE BOUGERE: (as The Invisible Man) I am an invisible man...

MCELROEN: And from there, a single light bulb comes on. And as he goes through his prologue, we fill the stage with light.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

BOUGERE: (as The Invisible Man) And I'm not a spook like those that haunted Edgar Allan Poe. Nor am I one of your Hollywood ectoplasm. I'm a man of substance, flesh, bone; and I might even be said to possess a mind. I'm invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. They see only my surroundings...

MCELROEN: And really, the idea is that he doesn't ever leave the basement room. It's that these visions, these memories from his past, he's revisiting and acting it out, you know, through his subconscious or whatever way you want to interpret it. And the story of the play is whether they give him the power by the end of the play to leave the hole or not.

CORNISH: And, as you said, this narrator, The Invisible Man, much of this is playing out in a story he's telling and therefore his mind and his memory. And maybe you could describe the scene where you weren't quite sure how it was going to come off the page.

MCELROEN: Yeah, I think the most challenging scene to stage in the piece is the Battle Royal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get in the ring...

MCELROEN: The Invisible Man is invited to give his graduation speech before the town's leading white citizens. And when he arrives he's asked to fight in a Battle Royal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One more...

MCELROEN: He's blindfolded, put in a ring with other young African-American men and reduced to an animal. To stage that scene with an ensemble of 10 blindfolded African-American actors was extremely, extremely challenging. Also, because in the novel, you're always in The Invisible Man's point of view, and how can you capture The Invisible Man's point of view? And so, we rely heavily on video projections, sound, and lighting design to try and capture his sphere.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

BOUGERE: That's a case where I think you get a visceral punch in the gut because there's blood, there is a guy falling, there's this overt racism. I believe that's a case in which it really works translating from the novel to the stage. I think that scene works really well.

CORNISH: Actor Teagle Bougere plays The Invisible Man, night after night. In the three-hour show, he never leaves the stage.

BOUGERE: I mean, I feel so lucky and honored to be doing those words. I wake up in the morning, and I look forward to doing it at night and on the weekends five times.

(LAUGHTER)

BOUGERE: It's wonderful. I love the soliloquies and the monologues, and what I am using to activate them is the audience. The way I am approaching this play, I am never there alone. That beginning monologue, what that's about, it's me asking the audience to bear witness to this journey I am about to go on. Because I want to get out of this hole, I want to change this, but I cannot do it without this audience. I'm using them to help me figure it out.

CORNISH: I want to ask you something actually...

BOUGERE: OK. OK.

CORNISH: ...about the audience, because while the play transcends race, it can sort of make you uncomfortable in a way. And I was in an audience that was almost 90 percent white when I saw it, and I felt very kind of like, oh no, how are people reacting to this. And I wondered about you presenting it to the very faces that in some passages feel accusatory.

BOUGERE: I think you're absolutely right and I think people do feel uncomfortable at times, and I thing that's all right. I felt what you're talking about, about the audience - white audience being there - I felt last night may be more than any night since we've been doing this show, that the audience was uncomfortable. I cannot recall a show in which when I would look at the audience I would have them turn away from me as many times as they did last night. And I'm not sure why that was. It was peculiar.

There is in that monologue, too, at the end, it is an indictment on what has been done to black people by white people specifically, there and other places too.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

BOUGERE: (as The Invisible Man) What else could I have done? All my life I've been looking for something. And everywhere I turn, somebody tried to tell me what it was. It took a long time before I realized I am nobody but myself, agree 'em to death and destruction. I'm stilled plagued by my grandfather's...

(Reading) I'm stilled plagued by my grandfather's deathbed advice. Did he mean - he must have meant the principle, affirm principle on which the country was built, not the men.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE INVISIBLE MAN")

BOUGERE: (as The Invisible Man) ...affirm principle on which the country was built, not the men. At least not the men who did the violence...

(Reading) Not the men, at least not the men who did the violence.

And the progeny of those men are in the audience at night, and they know it.

CORNISH: Who is The Invisible Man today?

BOUGERE: I think in a lot of ways it's the same person. I mean feel like in a lot of situations, a lot of places, I am still The Invisible Man.

MCELROEN: And the invisibility, it manifests itself in a lot of different ways. I mean, I still feel when I go into certain stores, a lot of stores, I am looked at in a way that a white person wouldn't be looked at. So that's invisibility in terms of not being seen literally, but not being seen as a human being, as a type. And it think something goes off in certain heads. I think that still happens. I don't know if...

CORNISH: As it says in the play, the context around you are...

MCELROEN: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And I don't - I don't even know if that's going to ever - if we're ever going to be without that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BLUE?")

CORNISH: Actor Teagle Bougere, who performs the title role in the play "Invisible Man," a character who sits alone in that basement apartment with only the voice of Louis Armstrong on the phonograph for company.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BLUE?")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing ...to be so black and blue. Oh, I'm white inside, but that don't help my case...

CORNISH: After Washington, the play moves on to Boston. And playwright Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen say the script is still evolving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND BLUE?")

ARMSTRONG: (Scatting) (Singing) How will it end? Ain't got a friend. My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.