Ralph Ellison would not allow his National Book Award–winning 1952 novel, Invisible Man, to be made into a movie or play. The writer's estate, however, relented, and here he is, Ellison's nameless African-American narrator, his "hole" outside Harlem relocated to the BU Theatre, beneath a shimmering crown of lights pilfered from Monopolated Light & Power. Are all of the book's 1369 bulbs alight and accounted for? If you felt the urge to count, Teagle F. Bougere, as the self-described socially invisible man, would not be doing his job. And believe me, as his character huddles up with Louis Armstrong and the phantoms of a life's experience of bigotry, quashed opportunity, and political betrayal, the earnest yet incendiary actor is doing his job.
This powerful if sometimes plodding production, a collaboration of the Huntington Theatre Company and Washington DC's Studio Theatre, is just the second outing for Oren Jacoby's stage adaptation, which premiered at Chicago's Court Theatre last year (director Christopher McElroen and Bougere worked on that production as well). At the insistence of Ellison's executor, the adaptation is scrupulously faithful. All dialogue comes from the novel — which proves searingly effective in the abbreviated prologue and epilogue, the latter delivered with a discomforting hint of audience implication by the lead character as he breaches the fourth wall, gearing up for renewed action. Elsewhere the play is strongest when it reaches beyond the historical/political to capture the hallucinatory effect of the novel. This is exemplified by the famed Battle Royal, in which the narrator shows up to deliver a high-school speech to a bunch of white fat cats and is instead inserted into a grotesque display of blindfolded boxing with other young black men.
In this epic if shadowy staging, enhanced by staccato 1930s period projections, Bougere simultaneously suggests the respectful idealism of the youth headed out to college and the cynicism-laced anger of the man biding his time in the urban underbelly. Bougere is ably abetted by an ensemble of nine, the mightiest of whom are Johnny Lee Davenport as power-corrupted "Negro" college President Bledsoe, among other roles, and Jeremiah Kissel as folksily ruthless mentor/organizer Brother Jack. In Ellison's jazz- and jive-influenced, symbol-saturated world, treachery would seem to come in all colors.
INVISIBLE MAN :: Boston University Theatre :: Through February 3 :: $25-$95 :: 617.266.0800 or huntingtontheatre.org