For 35 years, Studio Theatre has been a force to be reckoned with in the DC theatre community with productions that range from the classical to the contemporary. Its current production of Invisible Man, based on Ralph Ellison’s best-selling novel and adapted for the stage by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Oren Jacoby, stretches the theatre’s artistic and production-related limits in a good way. A delightful confection of a strong ensemble cast (led by the extraordinarily talented Teagle F. Bougere), a strong script, and stunning production elements make this show a must-see.
Invisible Man first premiered as a stage production at Chicago’s Court Theatre earlier this year. Transforming the very long, inspired yet wordy novel into a script for the stage is no small feat, but adaptor Oren Jacoby rises to the daunting challenge. He makes good use of novelist Ellison’s words and tone, but is also able to “theatricalize” the Invisible Man’s inner-monologues, in particular, in a way that is inspiring. He effectively balances the overall ponderous nature of the source material with effective storytelling. Christopher McElroen’s direction is extremely effective in further focusing the complex story, perhaps even for those audience members that are unfamiliar with the source material.
We meet the Invisible Man as a weary adult recalling how he arrived at his current circumstances. He remembers when he was an idealistic young black man in the Deep South with a passion for words and ideas and a chance at a college education. At that point in his life, he truly believed he could overcome larger race-driven societal attitudes, beliefs, and practices which could hinder his life chances and achieve individual greatness. After a run-in with his college administration, he leaves for New York City and settles in the border area of Harlem. Down on his luck, he takes a series of jobs (including one in a paint factory), until he attracts the attention of a “Brotherhood” committed to forcing social change in the community. In this experience (and the others that precede it), the Invisible Man learns some hard lessons about the power of words and community and the role of external social forces in shaping one’s individual path among other things.
Since the tale being presented is the Invisible Man’s story, it’s hugely essential that the actor portraying him be up to the daunting challenge of sharing the Man’s emotional and physical heartaches with the audience. Teagle F. Bougere gives a committed tour-de-force performance from start to finish. His gradual transformation from young idealist to someone who has experienced a lot of the ugly in this world is noteworthy. Intense at times, but also quiet, Bougere experiences a range of purposeful emotions on stage and nearly every acting moment is realistic and grounded. Most compelling are his initial scenes where he eagerly gives his first public speech and when he reels from the experience of watching a friend get shot. Through his nuanced portrayal, discerning audience members can identify those traits which transcend his individual character and were likely shared by many who lived through this tumultuous time in American history.
Though this production is certainly by necessity the “Bougere show,” the other 9 actors in the cast (each playing multiple roles) do a very commendable job portraying those individuals that shape the central character’s life experiences. The ensemble acting in this piece- with contributions from McKinley Belcher III, Brian D. Coats, Johnny Lee Davenport, De’Lon Grant, Edward James Hyland, Joy Jones, Jeremiah Kissel, Deidra LaWan Starnes, and Julia Watt- is noteworthy. There are no weak links within the cast and all make a concerted effort to work together, in an understated way, to create the Invisible Man’s world. Two performances deserve special mention.