Thursday, January 17, 2013

Invisible Man is finally sighted

The "Invisible Man" blindly battles for a chance to attend college. Photo(s): T. Charles Erickson.

Some sixty years ago, Invisible Man hit America's literary scene - and its racial consciousness - like a bombshell; and judging from the stage adaptation now at the Huntington (through February 3), Ralph Ellison's sprawling howl of a novel has lost little of its disturbing power.  Here, for the first time in our literature, Ellison gave tortured voice to black America's anger at white America, both for keeping it in chains and pretending it was free (and please don't pretend we don't deserve that), along with something even more shocking: a lacerating self-doubt, even self-disgust, at his own race's humiliating inability to shake off its shackles.

But perhaps Ellison's most unusual talent was for limning the twisted symbiosis between the races; as one "old singer of spirituals" tells him in a dream, "I dearly loved my master, son." The eponymous "Invisible Man" slowly realizes, however, that he must give up on that love if he is ever to truly exist in his own right. Duped and deceived by white society again and again - by both the political right and left - Ellison's nameless narrator finally, and famously, retreats underground (like his soulmate in Dostoevsky a century before) to a basement womb filled with electric lights and jazz records, where he ponders, like a ticking time bomb, how to engage a racist society with a consciousness entirely his own; he has in effect become the first racial existentialist.

The arc of the novel traces the narrator's painful descent through political illusion toward that bitter epiphany; and Ellison makes it a phantasmagoric ride, in which memory sometimes surrenders to dream, and the real can bleed into the surreal.  Thus his narrative is dotted with bald symbols (like the "Liberty Paint" company that produces "Optic White"), and barely-disguised political figures (Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute play a major role).  All this, when combined with Ellison's jazzily digressive style, means the book has been widely viewed as impossible to dramatize on stage or screen.

But in the current Huntington production (which was first developed at Chicago's Court Theatre, before touring to the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.), adaptor Oren Jacoby makes an honorable stab at the impossible.  Ellison's first chapters come off best, largely because they naturally cohere into a single long vignette, the misadventure by which the narrator is kicked out of a barely-disguised Tuskegee Institute.

The story is weirdly compelling: the Invisible Man (who has already been forced into a fistfight to win his "scholarship," above) has been entrusted with squiring one of the Institute's white benefactors, a Bostonian who dreams that he is "like Emerson," around the local environs.  Somehow the narrator and his charge find their way to "the Quarters," that is the old slave quarters, where the effects of turning human beings into property still linger.  Here they become entangled with a man who has sired children with his own daughter, which mortifies and shames the narrator - but he notices in his white patron a strange air of fascination mixed with repulsion.

The Invisible Man in 'The Brotherhood.'
Thus begins Ellison's long exploration of the deep exploitation of black America that followed (or replaced) slavery.  His "Invisible Man" is cast from the servile realms of the Tuskegee Institute after this embarrassing episode; he heads north, but reaches a personal nadir when an explosion in the "Liberty Paint" factory (where he works) coats him in "Optic White."  Even wilder dream-like sequences ensue, complete with shock treatments, before the narrator eventually recovers and begins to explore his new home of Harlem.

Here he is stunned to find white drivers obeying black policemen on the street; and he begins to wonder if perhaps he can be free of "Optic White" forever. But the first stirrings of his own political activity (he protests an eviction) draw him into the orbit of "The Brotherhood," a Communist-Party-like organization more interested in exploiting the suffering of African-Americans than alleviating it.

And it's here that the Huntington production begin to falter.  Adaptor Jacoby has held (perhaps wisely) to the spine of Ellison's narrative, and resisted the temptation to follow the author into the many discursive eddies of his text.  But in the end Jacoby simply isn't much of a dramatist (he is, perhaps tellingly, a documentary filmmaker), and shows little talent for the kind of structure and shaping required to stage the complicated intrigues of the Brotherhood.  And his stated aim to keep to Ellison's own dialogue, while streamlining his narrative, leads this playwright inevitably into a quandary; essentially what we get in the production's latter half is Ellison's episodic structure without his novel's richness.

This is too bad, but the evening is hardly a loss - and at any rate, can a critic honestly advocate for risk, as I often do, but then rail at only partial success in a project as worthy, but problematic, as this one?  I think that would be hypocrisy; indeed, I sometimes wish the Huntington would more often bite off more than it can chew.  On the other hand, after two previous iterations on regional stages, Jacoby by now has had plenty of time to ponder what is going wrong in his last act; if he hopes for a longer stage life for this work, my advice would be to fix it.

It should also be noted that there is not a single weak link in this exemplary cast.  Teagle F. Bougere is nothing less than phenomenal in the lead role, essaying with tireless intensity long swaths of Ellison's densely-worked prose.  And the supporting players were just as compelling; local lights Johnny Lee Davenport, De'Lon Grant and Jeremiah Kissel did themselves proud as they joined out-of-town talents McKinley Belcher III, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Deidra LaWan Starnes and Julia Watt.  A special shout-out, however, must go to Brian D. Coats, who perhaps more than anyone brought to life the signature cadence of Ellison's verbal jazz.

Meanwhile Christopher McElroen generally directed effectively, even if he couldn't quite pull the last act together, despite considerable help from design elements that were to the Huntington's usual high standard, with imaginative sound by David Remedios and nearly-constant projections by Alex Koch. All in all, Invisible Man is certainly the most challenging piece of theatre up on the local boards (by far); and even if it brings only a portion of Ellison's vision to the stage, that, to my mind, is cause for celebration.

No comments:

Post a Comment