On a farm in Waitsfield, Vt., in 1945, a Merchant Marine cook named Ralph Ellison was resting after his tour of duty.
"One morning scribbling, I wrote the first sentence of what later became The Invisible Man: 'I am an invisible man,' " Ellison recalled in an interview for National Educational Television.
He wrote that his protagonist — a Negro, as Ellison always put it — was young, powerless and ambitious for the role of leadership, a role at which he was doomed to fail.
Earnest and naive, the Invisible Man travels from his Southern hometown to Harlem and runs a gantlet of discrimination by whites, betrayal by blacks, and confusion about who he is and whom he must please. The Invisible Man tells his story from a basement apartment, a surreal refuge from a world that has cast him away.
Recently, writer Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen got the blessing of the Ellison estate to adapt the novel for the stage. Their play had its debut in Chicago and is now running at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.
"Look at this book!" Jacoby tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "It's crazy, you know; it was regarded at the time as an experimental novel, and it's not a piece that you would look at and say, 'Oh, it's a play.' But the question popped outta my head: Has anybody ever adapted this novel as a film or a play? And Ralph Ellison really didn't want that to happen while he was alive. He'd seen too many good books turned into bad movies."
Jacoby says he decided to write the play while he was working on a project about Shakespeare.
"Ellison seemed to understand that kind of rhetoric," he notes. "That, like a great Shakespearean speech where a character is faced with a decision about what to do, there's constantly an argument: Do I do this or do I do that? 'To be or not to be.' Do I go underground, or do I come out and be part of the world? And I felt that that dynamic made this a very theatrical text, and that it just spoke out to me. And I thought, 'Well, I'd better go for it.' "
The production team also faced the challenge of translating the book's visuals to the stage. The play is set in a basement filled with magazines, newspapers and, in the book, 1,369 light bulbs.
"We wanted to really capture the essence of his hole," McElroen explains. "We wanted it to start in darkness with just the voice, and from there a single light bulb comes on. And as he goes through his prologue, we fill the stage with light."
"The idea is that he doesn't ever leave the basement room in the play. It's that these visions, these memories from his past, he's revisiting and acting it out, through his subconscious or whatever way you want to interpret it. And the story of the play is whether they give him the power by the end of the play to leave the hole or not," Jacoby says.
The writers describe one of the most challenging scenes to translate, in which the Invisible Man is invited to give a speech in front of the town's white citizens, but ends up being asked to fight in a battle royale.
"He's blindfolded, put in a ring with other young African-American men and reduced to an animal. To stage that scene with an ensemble of 10 blindfolded African-American actors in white mask was extremely, extremely challenging," McElroen says.
Actor Teagle Bougere, who plays the Invisible Man, agrees with Jacoby and McElroen about the difficulty of that scene.
"That's a case where I think you get a visceral punch in the gut because there is blood, there's a guy falling — there's this overt racism. I believe that is a case in which it really works translating from the novel to the stage. I think that scene works really well," Bougere says.
The play requires stamina from its leading man: In the three-hour drama, Bougere doesn't leave the stage once.
"I mean, I feel so lucky and honored to be doing those words. I wake up in the morning, and I look forward to doing it at night and, on the weekends, five times," Bougere says.
The transition from the page to the stage also works because of a crucial element solitary reading cannot provide: an audience's reactions. Bougere describes how integral the audience is to his own experience of the play.
"It's wonderful. I love the soliloquies and the monologues, and what I am using to activate them is the audience — the way I am approaching this play, I am never there alone. That beginning monologue, what that's about is me asking the audience to bear witness to this journey that I am about to go on. Because I want to get out of this hole, I want to change this, but I cannot do it without this audience," he says.
While the play in many ways transcends race, it also tackles racial issues, something that Bougere says is very deliberate, and, at times, confrontational.
"I think people do feel uncomfortable at times, and I think that's all right," says Bougere.
Bougere also points to one of the most powerful moments of the play — the final monologue about the legacy of racism. During the scene, the Invisible Man goes into the audience, singles one audience member out, and speaks directly to them. Bougere says he does his best to connect eyes with them.
"Christopher [McElroen] in Chicago asked me, he said, 'Do you pick the person ahead of time who you do that last bit to in the audience?' And I told him, 'No, I don't pick the person ahead of time, but I always pick a white person.'"
Bougere reveals that this intimate confrontation with the reality of racism often makes people turn away. He says, "That monologue at the end is an indictment of what has been done to black people by white people, specifically."
Clearly the racial issues raised in Ellison's novel are unnervingly present, even decades later. After Washington, the play moves on to Boston. And playwright Oren Jacoby and director Christopher McElroen say the script is still evolving.