Invisible Man – 4 stars

Three words: emotional, intense, and complicated. That is how I would describe the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man to someone whose only previous knowledge may be the unrelated science fiction novel, The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells. Invisible Man, published in 1951, is not science fiction; it presents history, identity, and social commentary from the perspective of an unnamed African American, male, protagonist (the narrator). Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Oren Jacoby took the 600 page book and trimmed it down to a three hour, three act, two intermission dramatic presentation comprised solely of words from the book. He and director, Christopher McElroen, award-winner and co-founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, capture Ellison’s African American experience in 1930’s America, much of which represents the similar experience of “invisibility” facing African Americans, and other historically oppressed groups, in 2013. Jacoby and McElroen say the play is “still evolving” as it makes its Boston debut, from having just finished a Washington, D.C. run.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Starting in darkness, so begins the Teagle F. Bougere amazing three hour performance as the narrator, who never leaves the stage, into a journey of memories as he stands in his rent-free home, the basement of a building rented strictly to whites, listening to Louis Armstrong’s music on the phonograph under 1,369 glowing light bulbs which cover every inch of the ceiling. “Light confirms my reality,” he says, because it is through light, that the he knows he is still real. His recollections travel from childhood innocence in the Deep South, to a Negro college, to a painting company job in a New York, to the story’s end at a Harlem race riot. His journey moves through an America where racism, classism, and sexism are as visible at the proverbial “paint on the wall.” Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design is essential to setting the mood in this production, seconded by the projection design of Alex Koch, IMA, which helps us visualize the time and place of each scene.

At various points, one wonders if the narrator is being ironic, sarcastic, or truthful, as when he says, “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” In a book, the words tell the story. In this theatrical production, the video projections, sound and lighting design, and props used as symbols create the imagery that words cannot capture. Is the rope reminding the viewers of a lynching or is it really the rope of a boxing ring? The difference blurs when the narrator is treated as an animal and blindfolded with several other “boxers” in the ring for the sport of white majority. The fight scene directed by Robb Hunter portrays drama, blood, fear, and horror. The interactions which the narrator relays from one scene to another demonstrate that no one is hiding their negative opinions of African Americans, educated or not, or for that matter, women.

The Invisible Man company includes note-worthy performances by Joy Jones (Slave Girl, Mattie-Lou, Old Woman, Ensemble), Deidra LaWan Starnes (Singer, Kate, Mary Rambo, Ensemble), and Julia Watt (Stripper, Emma, Woman in Red, Ensemble, Fight and Dance Captain). These actors appear on stage in character, sometimes changing costume on stage, and immediately emerging as a new character. They are shown in traditional stereotypical roles, such as, a seductress or secretary. They are also part of the dramatic imagery used to represent a time period, as when being sold on an auction block or being raped. This show, with its intense themes and brief nudity, is not for children. At the evening performance I attended, I was hard-pressed to find anyone college-aged or younger, but the house appeared to be at full capacity with a diversity of race and gender among the patrons.

McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Johnny Lee Davenport, DéLon Grant, Edward James Hyland, and Jeremiah Kissle round out the cast. Each acted in multiple roles seamlessly, however, the boxing scene where they represent “the majority,” by wearing the same suit and a white mask, is most dramatic.

On March 1, 2013, Ellison would have turned 100 years old. African-American historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls Ellison’s book “one of the greatest novels ever written.” I really wanted to love this production, and I did love aspects of it, however, I am not a “student” of this historical time period or experience and found parts hard to follow, just like the book, and recommend this production to someone who has more knowledge. Viewing this production, is like reading Shakespeare – There is more than one soliloquy, a tragic hero, betrayal, search for identity, experiences from history, and intense characters. Just like Shakespeare, the language and storyline can be complicated at times and it is nice when there is a program (or book page) has some translating. But, alas, this does not exist for the Huntington Theater Company’s production of Invisible Man. The complicated nature of the scene by scene retelling can get confusing, if one does not have enough background knowledge of the time period, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing the pain, anguish, and resolve of this unnamed protagonist. You will want to keep talking with friends and others who see this performance, and that will deepen your understanding. There is no doubt that this show can make one feel uncomfortable, but by bringing us into the play with our intense feelings, we might bond with the narrator’s “uncomfortability” as he chronicles the racism he has experienced. Ellison’s character begs the question, “Do I stay underground (invisible) or do I come out to a world that does not want me?”