Ralph Ellison's highly symbolic 1952 novel reaches the stage in this adaptation by Oren Jacoby. The Huntington Theatre Company's (literally) brilliant production rests squarely, and comfortably, on the shoulders of Teagle F. Bougere, whose powerhouse performance invests the play with layers of rage, humor, desperation, pain, and hope.
Bougere's role is the "Invisible Man" of the play's title. As an African American in mid-20th century America, not only is he overlooked -- his humanity and potential disregarded by the dominant white populace -- but also he is left nameless in the play, as he was in the novel. (At one point, a radical "brotherhood" with which he joins up assigns him a new name, but, as with his old name, we never learn what it is.)
The play starts near the end and retells the main character's story in flashback, with narration along the way. Being black in a white-dominated society is only part of the problem here; the character is also young and somewhat naïve about the ways of the world. His disorientation is understandable: When his high school graduation speech is considered fine enough to bear repeating for a group of powerful local white men, he is summoned to perform it. But before he's allowed to speak, he's forced to fight in a "smoker," in which a group of young black men are blindfolded and put into a boxing ring for a mass fracas. Only after he gets punched out is the young man, dazed and still bleeding, allowed to present his speech. As a reward, he's handed a briefcase. Within it lies a document granting him a scholarship to a "Negro College." His benefactors tell him that one day, if he plays his cards right, he'll be carrying all sorts of vital documents in that briefcase.
That briefcase becomes a central motif. Like Voltaire's "Candide," our unnamed narrator stumbles from one extreme situation to the next, always attracted to trouble and always surrounded by people too blind, angry, or malicious to give him a fair chance. His misadventures generate a steady stream of papers to stuff into the briefcase: A series of letters of introduction that are actually poisoned pills designed to derail his education and his career; a sheaf of legal documents meant to strip him of recourse after an industrial accident; materials provided by The Brotherhood, a mysterious and ultimately sinister organization that preaches racial equality but proceeds from the assumption that individuals are expendable for the sake of the group. (As with all such organizations, there are exceptions: The individuals running the show feel free to allow their own self-interests to steer their decisions. The Brotherhood is clearly modeled on the American Communist Party, with which Ellison had a passing affiliation before departing its ranks, feeling betrayed.)
Bougere effortlessly traces his character's evolution from bright, inexperienced young man to street-wise, and somewhat cynical, veteran of his era's culture wars. His smart, focused, intuitive performance brings depth and urgency to the entire production.
There are spots where the production needs that intensely intelligent focus. Troy Hourie's set design cleverly accommodates a number of different settings as diverse as an elegant New York City apartment and the steamy, pipe-laced basement of a factory; it's efficient and handsome. The set includes several screens, where images are projected that sometimes expand the play's sense of place and motion. Especially effective is the use of projected images to show the narrator's ascent, via elevator, to the upper floors of an office building -- and then, a few minutes later, his dejected downward plunge; we feel both his surging high spirits and his raw, throbbing rejection thanks, in part, to those projected images.
But the projections can also become distracting. Once the setting has been established, do we need ongoing footage of secretaries busily typing? Here, and in a handful of other scenes, the rapid-fire images flickering away pull the eye and attention from Bougere, and there are moments when the play feels like a vintage movie, with images of spinning newspaper headlines rushing up and neon signs heaving past. The sense of montage seems misplaced.
Bougere, to his credit, always manages to reclaim the moment. He's aided by Mary Louise Geiger's intense, and often gorgeous, lighting design, as well as an effective sound design by the always-inventive David Remedios.
A small cast of players manages to populate the stage with a plethora of stylized and memorable characters. Their work is underscored by Kathleen Geldard's costuming, but the essence of each character comes from the actors themselves. McKinley Belcher III is terrifying as Ras, a fiery "destroyer" who preaches violent overthrow of the white regime. Johnny Lee Davenport plays a corrupt college president and a charismatic preacher with equal élan. Edward James Hyland gives us a doddering, deluded Bostonian philanthropist as well as one of the more chilling members of The Brotherhood; Joy Jones captivates in a momentary role as a slave woman on an auction block, and Diedra LaWan Starnes melts hearts as the improbably saintly Mary, a woman who takes in the narrator at his nadir and sees to his needs as he regains his health and his hope.
The rest of the cast are just as skilled and dedicated: De'Lon Grant packs passion and heartbreak into his role as Tod Clifton, whose fate at the hands of a policeman sparks a crucial turning point. Brian D. Coats shifts easily from a dying grandfather to a colorful street character (or two). Jeremiah Kissel is nothing short of arresting as a cultish, overbearing leader of The Brotherhood, and Julia Watt is a flat-out femme fatale.
One of America's most defining novels makes the transition to the stage successfully, and still -- after six decades and enormous leaps in social equality -- retains a capacity to shock, outrage, enlighten, and entertain. Director Christopher McElroen ensures that this production of "Invisible Man" is lovely to look at, while its message -- a universal message about disenfranchisement, power, and people -- stays absolutely as true in 2013 as it was in 1952.
"Invisible Man" continues at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, through Feb. 3. Tickets start at $25; seniors receive a $5 discount. Subscribers and BU community members (alumni, staff, faculty) get a $10 discount. Patrons 35 years of age and younger pay $25; students and military servicemembers pay $15 (valid ID required).
Tickets, schedule, and more information available at huntingtontheatre.org or via phone at 617-266-0800.