At one point during “Invisible Man,’’ a white political organizer testily asks the African-American protagonist: “Why do you fellas always talk in terms of race?’’
He instantly replies: “What other terms do you know?’’
Race does indeed define the terms of the title character’s tumultuous journey through two decades of American life in “Invisible Man,’’ adapted by Oren Jacoby from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, directed by Christopher McElroen, and starring Teagle F. Bougere as the title character.
A coproduction of the Huntington Theatre Company and the Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., the play unfolds like a fever dream on Troy Hourie’s industrial set. But the issues confronted by the protagonist are plenty real: ruthless power politics, betrayal, violence, manipulation, obstacles to his ambition, challenges to his fundamental identity — all within the wider context of racial injustice.
Although some early scenes verge on stiffness, the impact of “Invisible Man’’ steadily builds over the course of its nearly three hours, including two intermissions. Ultimately, the play is every bit as unsparing and disturbing as Ellison would have wanted it to be.
The novel’s famous opening line also begins the play, and it is spoken by Bougere from the darkness: “I am an invisible man.’’ Then the lights come up and we see a young man attired in a white singlet, a phonograph on a nearby table in his basement abode, a grid of light bulbs hanging overhead.
He has gone underground, chosen invisibility, and over the next three hours we learn about the lifelong social invisibility he had to confront. Bougere’s performance steadily gains in force as we witness, through his memory, the protagonist’s harrowing journey from the segregated South to an African-American college to New York City and, eventually, to his basement “hole.’’
At first, he is an optimistic young striver, but he encounters the punishing realities of bigotry and human cruelty. In one scene, he and other blindfolded young black men are forced to fight one another for the amusement of white businessmen. He is double-crossed by the African-American president of his college. Working in a paint factory, he is injured in an explosion, leaving his face spattered with white paint. The protagonist undergoes electric shock, strapped to an upright bed. Later, he is plunged into grief when a friend, also black, is shot to death on the streets of New York by a white police officer.
“Invisible Man’’ features a strong supporting cast that includes McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and several of Boston’s finest actors: Johnny Lee Davenport, Jeremiah Kissel, and De’Lon Grant.
There was reason to be apprehensive about a stage version of “Invisible Man,’’ especially for those of us who’ve always believed Ellison’s masterwork pretty much settled the whole Great American Novel debate. Not everything that works on the page works on the stage, especially if, like “Invisible Man,’’ the book in question relies on a vivid first-person narrator whose voice is a crucial part of the novel’s overall texture.
That’s why there’s scant reason to look forward to Baz Lurhmann’s upcoming film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.’’ By contrast, “Gatz,’’ the stage adaptation of “Gatsby’’ by Elevator Repair Service that played at the American Repertory Theater in early 2010, worked brilliantly in part because the adaptation employed every single word of the book, including Nick Carraway’s narration.
Though Jacoby doesn’t go that far, he shrewdly retains the first-person narration of “Invisible Man,’’ draws heavily from Ellison’s dialogue, and, most important of all, remains faithful to the author’s rigorously uncompromising spirit. The house lights go up full a couple of times during the show, and Bougere speaks directly to the audience, denying us any comfort we might take in our own invisibility.