Integrating Imagination: Staging Invisible Man

“This blazingly theatrical adaptation of one of the most important books of the 20th century confronts us with a blistering perspective on race in America.”- Peter DuBois

Invisible Man author
Ralph Ellison

When Ralph Ellison insisted that no adaptation of his iconic novel Invisible Man be made until after his death, he wasn’t merely being possessive. “Ralph was a stickler and a perfectionist and he was not persuaded it could be done,” explained his friend and literary executor, John Callahan. A panoramic tale of race in America told through one man’s experiences, Invisible Man is as monumental in length as it is in stature, an instant classic continuously in print for sixty years.

While its author’s censure, its narrative scope, and its legendary status might seem daunting to the adaptor, Invisible Man is a work primed for performance. “Ellison was completely theatrical in his language,” adaptor Oren Jacoby explains. “The book is poetic, dramatic, rhetorical.” Jacoby’s text uses only the words of the novel, realized through director Christopher McElroen’s striking imagery and the voices of a ten-member ensemble.

By bringing Ellison’s language to the stage, Jacoby continues the project that the novel began — recognizing the voice of a young black American as the collective voice of his nation.

Though written as a monologue, Invisible Man is rife with voices. In re-conceptualizing the American novel, Ellison captured the polyphonies of American speech. “Compared with the rich babel of idiomatic expression around me,” he wrote, the language of modern fiction “was embarrassingly austere.” In the South and in Harlem, Ellison heard people speaking “a mixture of the folk, the Biblical, the scientific, and the political. Slangy in one instance, academic in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of imagery in the next.” He transcribed this rich chaos in Invisible Man, a profusion that allows the novel’s narrator to become the myriad voices of an ensemble.

By embracing the contradictions of the vernacular, Ellison altered the scope of his tale. It became grander and more intimate, tuned to both magic and the mundane. Much as Jacoby’s adaptation combines the literary and the performative, Ellison wanted to “take advantage of the novel’s capacity for telling the truth while actually telling a ‘lie,’ which is the Afro-American folk term for an improvised story.”

Teagle F. Bougere in Invisible Man.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Though Ellison’s meticulous writing was hardly “improvised,” he was profoundly aware of signifying, that self-aware reshuffling of meaning that is a vital feature of black culture. Reviewing Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey, John Wideman defines signifying as “serious play that serves as instruction, entertainment, mental exercise, preparation for interacting with friend and foe in the social arena” — a description that also expresses theatre’s role in society. Wideman further explains that signifying “is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.”

For Ellison, linguistic flexibility was not only fundamentally black — it was also fundamentally American. “America is the land of masking jokers,” he wrote. “We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense, when we are projecting the future and preserving the past.” Black experience is American experience, and American experience is performance. “When American life is most American it is apt to be most theatrical,” Ellison stated — a compelling argument for realizing this nation’s creative visions on the stage.

In Ellison’s introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of his novel, he wrote, “Human imagination is integrative.” It seeks to combine disparate parts in the search for a higher meaning. The United States, which Ellison loved as fiercely as he critiqued, idealizes this same quest for synthesis. So does the theatre, in which a range of creative impulses must be brought into harmony. By linking the power of Ellison’s words to actors’ voices and the visual imaginations of director and designers, Oren Jacoby’s Invisible Man embarks on the same journey.

— Sam Lasman

The cast of Invisible Man. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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