“I am an invisible man.”
Ralph Ellison wrote that sentence in 1945, when he was a young man on leave from the merchant marine. Those five words captured the experience of many African-Americans of the era, and from that simple declaration, Ellison carved his masterpiece, the 1952 novel “Invisible Man.”
The book follows the story of a black man who holes up in a basement lair in Harlem, where he reflects on his life. He has been badgered, beaten, and betrayed. He has endured the trauma of electric shock treatment. He is unseen, but he longs to find his identity. He is a soul-searching American hero, an epic figure of Shakespearean size.
The enduring novel vibrates with rich language and visual imagery. It probes the great themes of American literature — the inequities of race and class, the struggle for success, the search for identity — yet for almost 60 years, it was never made into a movie or a play. Recently, that changed. Oren Jacoby’s adaptation of “Invisible Man” makes its New England debut through Feb. 3 at the Huntington Theatre Company, in a co-production with the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., where it opened in September. The play premiered a year ago at the Court Theatre in Chicago, and the creative team hopes to bring it to New York this year, which is the centennial of Ellison’s birth.
But how do you stage a play about a character who doesn’t even have a name?
That was a daunting task for Jacoby, who dreamed up the idea a decade ago while chatting with his friend John Callahan. They were in the basement cafeteria of the American Museum of Natural History on New York’s Upper West Side, not so many blocks from Harlem, where Ellison once lived. As Ellison’s literary executor, Callahan controls the rights to the novel, and Jacoby sought his approval.
Callahan didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. He offered a firm maybe.
“He told me I could do it on spec,’’ Jacoby recalls. “There were a million reasons not to do it, but at a certain point, I realized that if I don’t try this, I’ll regret it.”
The literary executor had his reasons for skepticism. Ellison, who died in 1994, turned down offers from many Hollywood producers, including Quincy Jones and Sidney Lumet. “Ellison thought it was every inch a novel,” Callahan says. “He would have doubted if it could be done effectively for the stage.”
Jacoby wondered that himself over the years. The novel opens in a basement hideaway in Harlem, where the protagonist lives underground in a room illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs. The story unfolds in his head, as he narrates a picaresque tale that traces his journey from the South to the North, where he takes a job at a company that manufactures white paint.
The adaptation is faithful to the book, which clocks in at nearly 600 pages. Jacoby cut and elided the text, but every word in the script comes straight from the novel, and he stresses that he is not imposing his own style on the piece. “It’s not my voice,’’ Jacoby says. “I am just the tailor cutting the beautiful garment.”
Without being asked, Jacoby raises a sensitive issue: that neither he nor director Christopher McElroen is black. “I think there is the question of ‘Why are these white boys doing this play?’ It’s the elephant in the room,” Jacoby says. But he also suggests that their affinity for the novel is a more important factor than race. “I was tempted and connected by the language and the story,” he says. Growing up in New York, he was immersed in black popular culture, which influenced his aesthetic. He was also inspired, he says, by the work of Athol Fugard, the white South African playwright whose major work champions the struggle of black South Africans oppressed under apartheid.
Jacoby, who is also a documentary filmmaker, staged a reading of the play at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. It was there that he met McElroen, cofounder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem. Nothing came of the play until 2009, when McElroen left the uptown theater. “I lost a certain sense of my own creativity,’’ McElroen says of his departure. In solace, he picked up a copy of “Invisible Man” and reread it. Inspired, he contacted Jacoby.
Since then, the play has undergone an ambitious developmental process. The pair conducted weeklong workshops at several universities, where they collaborated with students and academics. “We wanted to work with people who were smarter than us when it comes to all things Ellison,” McElroen says.
They spent a week at the University of Iowa, where Lena Hill, assistant professor of English and African-American studies, put together a series of forums about the novel and about race and identity in the mid-20th century. Fanny McConnell Ellison, the novelist’s late wife, graduated from the university in 1936. She majored in theater, but wasn’t allowed to perform onstage because she was black. The conference included a panel discussion featuring African-American graduates who had similar experiences.
The creators also worked with students, who did staged readings of Jacoby’s play. “It really brought the text to life,” says Hill, who has written extensively about Ellison. “It was an amazing experience for me as a scholar. We work alone in the archives, and it gave me a new way to think about the text.”
In her research, Hill discovered several letters written by Ellison in response to requests to adapt his novel. In a letter to Lumet, he wrote that he turned down such entreaties in part because he felt that some people “have been much more impressed by a few thousand dollars than I could afford to be.” In another letter, he wrote, “I prefer that the book rest on its merits as a novel rather than transposed into a form for which it was not written.”
With that in mind, the team has been extraordinarily careful to honor the spirit of the book. While Ellison did not explicitly ban dramatic adaptations in his will, his estate meticulously guards the rights. At the same time, the production employs elaborate staging techniques to punctuate the text. It is underscored with music, notably blues and jazz and the recordings of Louis Armstrong. It features video projections to evoke time and place and to depict the period of the 1930s. The staging also draws on the work of artist Romare Bearden, who was a friend of Ellison’s and whose vibrantly hued collages capture the African-American experience of his time.
The novel has spoken directly to many, including the young Barack Obama, who has written about its influence on his own coming of age. Actor Teagle F. Bougere, who plays the title character in the stage adaptation, first read the novel in 1992, when he moved to Harlem. He’d been eager to play the role ever since. “Every night, I put Ralph Ellison’s legacy on my back,’’ he says.
The three-hour production is a physical and emotional marathon for Bougere. In the “battle royal” scene, the protagonist is blindfolded and put into a boxing ring and forced to slug it out with other black men. It’s brutal, but it isn’t the hardest part of the performance for Bougere. He has to dig deep during the scene in which he discovers that his mentor, a black college president named Dr. Bledsoe, has deceived him with a lacerating letter of recommendation. His innocence is shattered. “It’s a life-changing moment for him,’’ Bougere says. “The physical things are hard, but the emotional thing is hard to fake.”
The actor’s favorite parts are the two monologues that frame the piece. In the end, he goes out into the audience to address the crowd, sometimes sitting in an empty seat and speaking directly to one person. It’s unnerving for the audience — but in a good way, Bougere says. “This guy is in a hole. He has removed himself from the world. The only way he can get out is to relive the story. He can only do it if people bear witness, so the audience is really important,’’ Bougere says. “Basically I call out white people and I call out the history. It makes some people uncomfortable, but it should be uncomfortable.”
Bougere says he identifies with the protagonist: He knows what it feels like to be invisible. But in order to play the invisible man, he needed one thing that Ellison didn’t give him. He needed a name. So, in his own mind, he decided on one. “I know what his name is,’’ Bougere says. “He has a name, but I haven’t told anyone, not even my wife.”
Callahan says his friend Ellison would have relished this detail and would have been curious to know what the actor calls his iconic character. But Bougere is keeping that a secret, and it feeds his performance. “I am the only one in the world who knows.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this story misidentified the race of the character Dr. Bledsoe in the play “Invisible Man.”