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Race relations — Court, Goodman staging explosive, timely Ellison and Mamet works

Teagle Bougere (left) A.C. Smith star 'Invisible Man' Court Theatre.

Teagle Bougere (left) and A.C. Smith star in "Invisible Man" at Court Theatre.

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◆ Through Feb. 19

◆ Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis

◆ Tickets, $40-$60

◆ (773) 753-4472;


◆ Through Feb. 19

◆ Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

◆ Tickets, $25-$89

◆ (312) 443-3800;

Updated: January 19, 2012 6:54PM

Studs Terkel called race “the American obsession” — a persistent compulsion that is sometimes blatant, sometimes covert, but unquestionably deeply embedded in our national psyche.

You need look no further than some of the recent offerings on Chicago stages to see the truth of this. Earlier this season at Steppenwolf, Bruce Norris’ “Clybourn Park” gave us a contemporary update on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” examining the connection between race, real estate and social mobility. Lookingglass Theatre is now presenting “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” a drama recounting the story of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the ranks of major league basedball. And now a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man ­— which traces the elaborate odyssey of an African-American intellectual and activist in the first half of the 20th century ­— is about to receive its world premiere at Court Theatre, while “Race,” David Mamet’s brash drama about blacks and whites, and sex, power and the legal system, is about to receive its Midwest debut at the Goodman Theatre on the heels of a Broadway run.

An intriguing footnote to these two productions is the fact that a white director, Christopher McElroen, is staging the Ellison work (which has been adapted by Oscar-nominated documentarian Oren Jacoby), while a black director, Chuck Smith, is staging Mamet’s play (which was staged by the playwright himself in New York).

“Invisible Man,” initially published in 1953, is a quasi-hallucinatory (and quasi-autobiographical) journey narrated, in retrospect, by an unnamed black man forever in search of his identity. The man takes us back to his youth in a small Southern town where he was an exceptional student who earned a scholarship to a black college. But, in his junior year, a strange and complicated incident derails his future and triggers the first in a series of great disillusionments.

The man moves on to New York, where his great expectations turn into nothing but a lowly job in a paint factory specializing in the the manufacturing of white paint. Along the way he is incarcerated in a mental hospital, rescued from the streets of Harlem by an unusually kind woman who reminds him of his southern roots, becomes drawn into the Communist party, has a run-in with a black nationalist, and time and time again is slapped with betrayal and growing cynicism. Attacked by a couple of white boys, he ends up in a coal-filled basement where this story — a long saga about the realization of his profound invisibility ­— finally unspools.

It is a story that sounds more suited to the screen than to the stage. But McElroen said it was its very cinematic nature that drew both Jacoby and himself to the project, though in their determined effort to remain wholly faithful to the book they have “made sure every word in the script belongs to Mr. Ellison.”

“One of the big challenges with this material was to create a sense of movement, and because this is a memory play we have the freedom to turn to abstraction in our creation of the Invisible Man’s journey through the world. The story ultimately lives in his head.”

McElroen, who grew up in New York, made the transition from being “a very bad actor” to a director while studying at Pace University. Fostered by the exuberant theater scene on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the 1990s, he also began teaching at the multidisciplinary Harlem School of the Arts, and this eventually led him to co-found (with Alfred Preisser) the acclaimed Classical Theatre of Harlem, which he ran from 1999 to 2009.

“I had wanted to work on an adaptation of the Ellison book for the Classical Theatre, but his estate was not really ready to let that happen,” said McElroen. “But I met Oren [Jacoby] back in 2005, and we took his early draft of the work for a successful reading at the Tribeca Film Festival. Then, when I left the Classical Theatre, ‘Invisible Man’ was at the top of my list of freelance projects to pursue, and Charlie Newell [Court’s artistic director], instantly responded to our quest for a partnership.”

The Court production features New York-based actor Teagle F. Bougere in the title role (“He has such a beautiful Everyman quality,” said McElroen), along with such formidable Chicago actors as A.C. Smith, Lance Baker, Paul Stovall, Tracey N. Bonner, Kenn E. Head, Bill McGough, Julia Watt, Chris Boykin and Kimm Beavers.

“The adaptation unfolds in three acts — set in the South, in Harlem and finally, in a more naturalistic mode, where everything spirals deeper into a world where the narrator realizes nothing has really changed for him,” said McElroen, “Along the way we are using projections, with multiple projectors focusing on six screens that move throughout the space to conjure the man’s memories through powerful imagery. We also are trying to capture the brisk rhythms and music referred to in the book ­— from Louis Armstrong and backwater blues, to Beethoven and Dvorak — as well as the literary influences of everyone from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky, Melville and T.S. Eliot.”

“Race is obviously an enormous part of this story,” said the director, who noted he was particularly pleased to present this play on the campus of the University of Chicago, where Ellison taught in the late 1940s. “But the story also is about what it means to be part of that experiment called American democracy — something we are all in together, whether black or white. And what human being hasn’t had moments of invisibility — when you feel you are not seen, or not being allowed to be seen?”

For Chuck Smith, the Goodman Theatre’s resident director, the process of directing “Race” has been a somewhat more “head-on” process.

“I saw the show on Broadway and loved it, even if I had some issues with the performances by its second cast,” said Smith. “I’ve always loved Mamet, but have never directed his work, and I thought this play would be particular fun to do. It’s completely dialogue-driven, which makes it easy on the director if you choose the right actors, and I’ve got them — in Geoffrey Owens [familiar as Sondra Huxtable’s husband on “The Cosby Show”], Marc Grapey, Patrick Clear and Tamberla Perry.”

Mamet’s play is set in motion as two high profile lawyers — Henry (Owens’ character, who is black), and Jack (Grapey, who is white) — discuss whether or not they should take on the defense of Charles (Clear), a wealthy white man accused of raping an African-American woman. Charles insists they were in a romantic relationship and their sex was concensual. Things get more complicated thanks to the lawyers’ new associate, Susan (Perry), a black woman in her 20s.

“Of course the recent case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn [the head of the International Monetary Fund accused of raping a black hotel maid], as well as Mitt Romney’s recent ‘out of context’ remarks about firings, all fit right into this play,” said Smith. “The audience will easily tag into many things, with sex and race all mixed up here. and with lots of twists and turns. It grabs you right from the start, and as you would expect with Mamet, it’s also very blunt and in your face about issues often considered to be taboo. Whatever Mamet’s characters are thinking comes right out of their mouths, and the playwright has no fear of hurting your feelings.”

About the whole issue of race, and who should or should not direct the work of certain writers, Smith was impatient.

“I remember August Wilson’s objections to having his plays directed by whites,” said Smith. “But this is America, and that kind of thing is just not going to happen here. Why even go there? There will always be crossovers, and if not, then both our theaters, and the country itself are in trouble. I loved August, but I don’t have to agree with him. I would feel horribly limited if I could only direct the work of black playwrights, as much as I love that work. And it would be very limiting for what is now a huge pool of exceptionally talented black actors, too.”

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