Entertainment » Theatre

Oren Jacoby - The Playwright Behind ’Invisible Man’

by Kay Bourne
Contributor
Wednesday Jan 23, 2013
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One day, as novelist and Blues music critic Albert Murray was out walking in New York, he spotted his close friend Ralph Ellison coming towards him.

Ellison was talking to himself.

Murray stopped Ralph and asked why.

The literary critic and scholar told him "I’m just practicing the dialogue for my novel. I want it to sound as good out loud."

That novel was the 1952 "Invisible Man." The story of the African American man’s dilemma living in white racist America immediately won Ellison fame and became a classic of American letters.

Sixty years after the landmark American novel’s publication, the Huntington Theatre Company presents a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s epic, the first adaptation in any media to be authorized by the Ellison Trust. The Joseph Jefferson Award (Chicago’s theater accolade) winning script is by Oren Jacoby.


The Huntington is known for producing new works such as most of August Wilson’s on their way to Broadway and classics made current.

Christopher McElroen, co-founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, directs and Teagle F. Bougere plays the title role.

The production also features actors well known to Boston theater-goers Johnny Lee Davenport, De’Lon Grant, and Jeremiah Kissel.

An experimental novel, "Invisible Man" follows the misadventures of an unnamed narrator in episodes in the Jim Crow South, including a horrific boxing event matching blindfolded black men at a rich white’s smoker, to scenes on a traditionally black college campus headed by a power crazed black president, and on to the streets, restaurants, and meeting places of 1930s Harlem where nationalists and Bolsheviks vie for the black public’s allegiance. These Don Quixote-like experiences lead to his taking up residency in a cellar in an apartment house on the border of Harlem where he is pondering the refusal of others to see him for himself and as a person.


For Oren Jacoby, who has adapted the story for the stage, the black vernacular expressed by the characters was one of the fundamentals that made it possible for him to make a play out of the novel.

He also benefited from the novel being episodic and from the story’s narrator’s using rhetoric in "his interpretation of what’s going on around him," said Jacoby.

Jacoby adds that Ellison kept two books on his desk while he wrote the novel: Webster’s dictionary and the complete works of William Shakespeare. "Every scene in Shakespeare is an argument," the script writer comments

"Think of ’to be or not to be,’ for instance, said Jacoby, "and there is something Shakespearean about the novel." One of Jacoby’s films was the PBS "Shakespeare Sessions" about how to speak and play the Bard’s language which featured the theatrical director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Barton with actors Kevin Kline and Charles Dutton among others.

In a letter Ellison wrote to Murray at the time he was working on the novel, Ellison noted, "And you keep writing ---all it takes is----it, grit and motherwit-and a good strong tendency towards lying (in the Negro sense of the term)."

That’s almost a direct quote from the novel, said Jacoby, reached by phone on the eve of the play’s opening at his Manhattan Storyville Films office. "The play’s dialogue is completely that of Ellison’s in ’Invisible Man,’ by the way, and that particular line spoken by the Harlemite Peter Wheatstraw is ’shit, grit, and motherwit.’

"One of the great appeals to me of Ellison’s ’Invisible Man’ is the poetry of how his people talk. No one is better at capturing that than Ralph Ellison who is great at it for nuance, place, and time."

Other ventures for Jacoby in film and television as a director, producer, and/or screenwriter include "Topdog Diaries" with Suzan-Lori Parks, Don Cheadle, and Jeffrey Wright. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.

Invisible Man is at the BU Theatre at 264 Huntington Ave. (across from Symphony Hall) through Feb. 3. 2013. For tickets and more info please go on-line to www.huntingtontheatre.org.


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