Invisible Man: Uncomfortable reminder of the past that shocks and entertains

Teagle F. Bougere shines in “Invisible Man” at Studio TheatrePhoto: Astrid Reiken

The Invisible Man at Studio Theatre raises questions  on whether we truly see others in spite of or because of race and other differences.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Oren Jacoby adapted the play, which is based on Ralph Ellison’s award-winning 1952 novel that can be found in the “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at The Library of Congress. The production is in the capable hands of an experienced 10-member ensemble and phenomenal behind-the-scenes staff.

The play centers on an optimistic young man growing up in the segregated Deep South. His penchant for rousing speeches earns him a scholarship to the State College for Negroes. The grandson of former slaves, the unnamed academic (the fantastic Teagle F. Bougere) moves to Harlem. He lands a job in a paint factory and later becomes the inspirational speaker for a social movement. It is easy to root for Bougere’s Invisible Man. He is a naïve and likeable guy plunged into the tumult of social upheaval and violence.

The complex play combines beautiful poetry with fast-paced violence and flinch-inducing racial slurs. For audiences raised on political correctness, Invisible Man is a shock to the system and an uncomfortable reminder of this country’s not-so-distant past. Racist language drips off the tongues of Southern whites, and even well-intentioned Northern whites stereotype blacks for their entertainment value.

While serious and tense confrontational moments dominate the play—the cast includes trigger-happy police and protestors on the verge of rioting—there are moments of clever comedic relief. When Invisible Man orders whiskey at a black bar for an absent white college trustee, Mr. Norton, (Edward James Hyland) the bartender (Johnny Lee Davenport) urges Invisible Man to bring him inside.

“Tell him we don’t Jim Crow nobody,” he says. Davenport and Hyland, along with the rest of the cast except Bougere, each play at least three characters.

A light-hearted scene sure to strike a chord with recent graduates and weathered professionals alike occurs in the second act. Invisible Man pounds the pavement for a temporary job, a smart briefcase and letter of introduction from College President Bledsoe (the intimidating Davenport) in hand. Three female secretaries form a triangle around Invisible Man. His request for a meeting with the boss plays out in triplicate, with the secretaries echoing one another and finishing one another’s sentences. Does Invisible Man have an appointment? Is the boss expecting him? Quick flashes to the boss are brilliantly framed.

For a play about invisibility, the visual elements of “Invisible Man” almost steal the show. Troy Hourie (setting), Mary Louise Geiger (lighting), Alex Koch (projections), and David Remedios (sound) deserve praise.

“Invisible Man” opens in pitch black darkness, and lighting gradually crescendos to unveil a cozy, dusty basement apartment. More than a 1,000 bare light bulbs, lamp fixtures, chandeliers, and candles illuminate the stage in yellows, whites, and reds at various times through the performance.

When Invisible Man’s grandfather (Brian D. Coats) dies, a candle is snuffed out. Grainy black and photography and digitized film—much of it pulled from the National Archives —is often weaved into the background. When Invisible Man realizes a betrayal, the video pans down the side of a skyscraper giving the audience a sense of Bougere’s disappointment.

Actors make full use of the theater, yelling and singing in the aisles, giving the audience the feeling of surround sound. Sound is not the only movie-like quality in the play. During an act one fight scene, blindfolded young men box at times in slow motion and other times at a quickened pace.

Scene changes occur seamlessly, with cast members rearranging props and sometimes changing on stage without distracting from the plot.

The three-act play starts to feel long during the final act, but I am hard pressed to suggest what to cut. My only other qualm is with the seduction scene in act three. It is unbelievable that the scene ends without a fight between the men involved.

Invisible Man is a thought-provoking play, best seen with someone with whom you can discuss it after. The show will have you dusting off the book if you haven’t read it since high school.

Invisible Man is playing at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., through Oct. 14. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Matinees start at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesday performances are available at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18 and Sept. 25. Tickets start at $35. 202.332.3300.