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‘Invisible Man’ celebrates its 61st birthday on stage

Shanice Maxwell | 1/24/2013, 9:08 a.m.
Before braving the New England cold, stars of Invisible Man pose after their Friday night performance. (L to R): Johnny Lee Davenport, McKinley Belcher III, De’Lon Grant, Joy Jones, Brian D. Coats, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Julia Watt and Edward James Hyland. Not shown: Main actor Teagle F. Bougere and Jeremiah Kissel. Daniel Irvin

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Before braving the New England cold, stars of Invisible Man pose after their Friday night performance. (L to R): Johnny Lee Davenport, McKinley Belcher III, De’Lon Grant, Joy Jones, Brian D. Coats, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Julia Watt and Edward James Hyland. Not shown: Main actor Teagle F. Bougere and Jeremiah Kissel.

A wave of silence gripped the crowd as lights dimmed in the packed Boston University theatre last Friday. Moments earlier chattering voices buzzed, but suddenly a pin drop could be heard.

Everyone seemed to be holding their breath, unsure of what the production of Invisible Man would bring.

Invisible Man is an African-American classic published in 1952 and written by Ralph Ellison. Since then it’s been highly acclaimed. But it was this production, written by Oren Jacoby and directed by Christopher McElroen, that brought life to Ellison’s book for the very first time.

The theatrical adaptation depicts the story of an “unnamed, idealistic, young African-American [as he] searches for identity and his place in the world as he journeys through 1930s America – from the Deep South to Harlem,” according to Rebecca Curtiss, Huntington Theatre Company’s communications manager.

Facing the small stage were nearly 500 people who watched intently as Teagle F. Bougere, the star of the show, opened with the line “I am an invisible man.”

With every line, he and fellow cast members, 10 actors total, spoke emphatically. Looks of attentiveness and murmurs of affirmation — especially from the few invisible men and women present — were frequent. Occasional laughs, when echoed, lightened the mood, if only for a short while.

 “I think it’s good. It’s in your face, it’s out there and they’re definitely not sugar-coating anything up in here which is good,” said Jennifer Tawiah, 31, of Jamaican Plain. “It’s interesting to look around, there aren’t too many colored folks in here but that’s Boston for you.”

Invisible Man’s storyline, though not grotesque, is a dense tale of race, class, power and freedom told from the perspective of one of society’s marginalized groups: the black man.

If only more invisible men were present to enjoy it.

The curtain closed two times for intermissions. Though only 10 minutes long, the breaks seemed like an hour for enthusiastic attendants like Amelia Cain, 20, a BU theatre student from Ashfield.

“I am enthralled by the use of their stage … the use of the multimedia is really powerful. It’s [just] a beautifully written script so far,” she said.

Screens on stage helped reinforce the actors’ words and propel them even further into the minds of viewers.  Black and white pictures of people and places as well as seemingly old video footage added dramatic effect without taking away from spoken lines.

Unlike the atmosphere of a movie theatre, people seemed less preoccupied with being entertained and more interested in connecting with the characters and gaining a true understanding of their words, Ellison’s words.

“It’s such a dense piece of art in terms of what it has to say to African-American men specifically, African-American people specifically, and the role in general,” said actor Deidra LaWan Starnes.

Sixty-one years after the publication of Invisible Man, many of Ellison’s words are relevant today.

“There are just things that are still happening today that you really wouldn’t expect. So it’s almost like, even though you’re watching his play, you’re identifying with issues that are alive and current,” Starnes added.

When the play ended, the entire audience rose to its feet and gave a thunderous round of applause. One person even shouted “Encore!”

The crowd took its time leaving the theatre, while many stayed for a post-show audience conversation.

“Invisible Man is one of my favorite books,” said Sam Shupe, 23, a BU grad student from Portland, Maine. “It’s one of those books that kind of shaped who I was at the time [I was reading it]…It’s great. I [had] a great time.”


Invisible Man will be showing until Feb. 3, 2013. Ticket information can be obtained at www.huntingtontheatre.org