Teagle F. Bougere | Performer of the week

Teagle F. Bougere in Invisible Man at Court Theatre

Teagle F. Bougere in Invisible Man at Court Theatre Photograph: Michael Brosilow

In the title role of Court Theatre’s five-star adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Teagle F. Bougere gives an astounding, exhausting performance as a nameless black man struggling to be seen in early 20th-century America. A native of San Francisco who never went back west after attending grad school at NYU, Bougere has made a steady career for himself on the East Coast, appearing in Broadway productions of A Raisin in the Sun and The Tempest and serving as a company member of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage for five years. The actor, last seen on the Chicago stage in Goodman’s The Good Negro in 2010, says Court's production is his second run-in with a theatrical adaptation of Ellison’s novel; he spoke with us about his familiarity with the text, his intense preparation for the role, and the ways he feels Ellison’s book remains relevant 60 years after its publication.

How familiar were you with Invisible Man before being cast in the play?

I was quite familiar with it for a couple reasons. I had read the book, wonderfully enough, when I was living in Harlem. I had moved to Harlem in 1990, around ’89 or ’90, I was living with a friend in Harlem, and I’d heard of the book my whole life and never read it, so I said "I’m gonna read Invisible Man." I read it, I lived on 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Then jump to 2007, Joe Morton adapted and directed a stage version of Invisible Man, it was under the auspices of the Public Theater in New York. I played the Invisible Man in that; it was a two-week workshop. We did a presentation for the theater, they were considering it, and they ended up not doing it. Jump to the summer of this year, there was another Invisible Man coming with a totally different group of people. Joe Morton wasn’t involved with it anymore, [director] Chris McElroen and [adapter] Oren [Jacoby] were involved. I went into that one, and now I’m here in Chicago.

How did you prepare for the role before rehearsals began?

I went back to the books, of course. It was a role where it was really important for me to be solid with the text beforehand. I started learning the text before I got here so I wouldn’t have to worry about that. So I would just be able to create stuff with Christopher and with the cast members. It’s so demanding physically, I run regularly, but I added to that. It was a little bit like a boxer workout. [Laughs.] I would do push-ups, I would do my sit-ups, I would run—I live in Brooklyn—I would run in Prospect Park. I’d do my two miles; sometimes I would do bits from the play while I ran, but mainly I just wanted to make sure that I would have a lot of wind. I’m on stage the whole show. During tech I was thinking about that, because usually you’re doing a play, you have at least a couple scenes where you’re not on stage and you can read your book. I did not have that opportunity. I am onstage from beginning to end.

It’s a very physical role. What was that rehearsal process like?

It was tiring. It was rewarding, but tiring. I’m really pleased with what I did by learning the text ahead of time, because I didn’t have that on my head. That freed me up, so it wasn’t as tiring as it could have been. It was a good tired, as opposed to a tired that had pressure or anxiety to it. The process was good. There were things in the script that I felt should go or be rearranged, and we had conversations about that, the adapter, Christopher, and myself. For the most part, it was all really good, I really enjoyed it. It was also propelled by the fact that I so love the book. Before I came here, I went up to Ellison’s house, he lived over 30 years on Riverside Drive, and I went up there and hung out there a little bit, and it was really inspiring. I was raring to go.

Are there any elements of Invisible Man that you feel are especially relevant to contemporary society and modern race relations?

Absolutely, yes. The fact that he feels unseen, I think that still happens today. And right away, you think Invisible Man, you think of a black man in a white society, but it’s not just black people. There are a lot of people that I feel are marginalized or invisible or unseen. The book still has a lot of relevance, and that’s great. So many people are coming to the show because they know the book, because they love the book or they want to see how we’re going to turn 600 and however many pages into a few hours at the theater. Other people are coming and they’ve heard of it, but they don’t know it. They’re hearing it for the first time, and I’m honored to be the person that is that conduit for them.

Because the Invisible Man is representative of a larger group of people, were you able to bring more of yourself to the character? Did you feel more freedom because you weren’t restricted by specifics like a name?

I feel like I brought myself into the character, not because he didn’t have a name, but because I always look to find what parts of the character I identify with personally and try to use those. What it does, among other things, is it makes me act less. I can call on those things so there’s something more truthful I’m calling on. There are a lot of parts with the Invisible Man that I identify with. The book is about so many things: It’s about a guy coming to the big city from the country, it’s about a guy feeling lonely, about a guy being isolated, about a guy wanting to please, it’s about so many aspects that I think so many of us go through. And of course we have to condense it for the play, but I think there are things within the play and the book that speak to everyone, regardless of sex, regardless of color. It’s about identity, and I think just about every has had—I was going to say struggles but I think that’s too strong—has had questions about that. Their place in society, or in their family, or the world.

What do you feel sets the Chicago theater community apart from the other cities you've worked?

It’s vital. I really enjoy working in Chicago because there’s so much going on. Outside of New York, it’s probably the city I’ve found the most vital in terms of activity, of people coming to see the show, of excitement about theater. The few shows I’ve been in here have been really wonderful.

Invisible Man runs through February 19 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave (773-753-4472, courttheatre.org).

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)