When was the first time you felt invisible? When was the last time you looked right through someone, as if he wasn’t there? Director Christopher McElroen posed those questions to his cast when he began rehearsing the stage adaptation of “Invisible Man.” He asked the actors to fill out a form with 25 questions, probing their personal experiences about loss of identity.
“We’ve all felt invisible at one time or another,’’ McElroen says. For instance: He recalls moving from California to New York when he was a small boy. He skipped the second grade and went directly to third grade, but he was required to go to the second-grade class for reading. He felt as if the teacher and the students in reading class didn’t even see him, so for two weeks, he hid in the all-purpose room and daydreamed. “I chose invisibility for myself, but my teachers eventually found out. Needless to say, I wasn’t invisible anymore.”
Novelist Ralph Ellison certainly knew what it meant to be unseen when he wrote the novel “Invisible Man,” which was published before the civil rights movement. “People didn’t really see him. They saw a ‘Negro.’ That was his word of choice,’’ says John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor. “But from the time he was a little boy, he was imbued with a sense of fight against it. I think that’s why he wanted to become a novelist and why he was so passionate about articulating what he felt America was all about.”
But invisibility can have many meanings. Lena Hill, a literature professor at the University of Iowa who collaborated with the production team, remembers craving anonymity as a child. “I grew up in a white environment, and as a young black girl, I felt hyper-visible,’’ she says. “I have many memories of feeling self-conscious. I was sort of the chosen one — the only black girl in the gifted class, the only black student in my graduate program at Yale. I remember being in third grade studying Africa, and they were showing pictures of people with rings in their noses. Everyone turned around and looked at me. I wanted to be invisible.”
Actor Teagle F. Bougere, who portrays the play’s title character, had a different experience. Growing up as an African-American male, he felt as if people often put a label on him without attempting to see him for who he was. He still feels that way from time to time. “It is not as if someone literally doesn’t see you,” he says. “It is an invisibility where you are seen and quickly stereotyped. You are typecast.” A few months ago in Washington, D.C., where he was performing in “Invisible Man,” he felt it at the National Gallery of Art: the sensation of the people at the museum being suddenly a little more aware, a little less relaxed, when he entered their orbit. “It didn’t bother me as much when I was younger, but as I got older, it started to land more. It started to bother me more. Sometimes I want to stop and say, ‘No. Look at me. I am here.’ ”