Ralph Ellison and his estate long resisted entreaties to adapt his 1952 novel to other media, for reasons that might seem obvious. On the page—all 600 or so of them—Ellison’s sprawling, lyrical first-person narrative of a young African-American man’s disillusioning journey through various and insidious flavors of bigotry and racial ideologies, with its jazz-like shifts in tone and rhythm, may appear too vast or variegated to survive the transfer.
That makes Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen’s stunningly successful new stage adaptation all the more remarkable. Working entirely within Ellison’s own words, the playwright and director distill Invisible Man into a three-act drama that speaks in a language all its own, losing a few of the author’s finer details but making up for them with a vital visual vocabulary and the judicious use of an outstanding ensemble.
In three acts, Oscar-nominated documentarian Jacoby captures the essence of Ellison’s major movements, from the protagonist’s sweeping prologue to his betrayal at a Southern college to his sobering experiences in Harlem. Without inserting any flourishes, Jacoby and McElroen find ways to theatrically underline Ellison’s themes, such as using the same actor (Bill McGough) to play Mr. Norton, the narrator’s earliest well-meaning white tormentor, and later characters who, through the actor’s presence, bring up Norton’s specter again.
Each member of the ten-person ensemble shoulders his or her weight, but Teagle F. Bougere puts out a Herculean effort as the nameless title character, fully commanding the stage he essentially never leaves. Attention must also be paid to Alex Koch, whose brilliant projection designs are among the most essential I’ve seen; Classical Theatre of Harlem cofounder McElroen creates plenty of compelling stage pictures of his own. This Invisible Man should be seen far and wide.