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.”
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.