“I am an invisible man…
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
THE INVISIBLE MAN is a novel written by Ralph Ellison. Published in 1952, it explores the psyche of an African American man whose colour renders him invisible. Set in Renaissance Harlem, this National Book Award-winning piece forces readers to face difficult truths about a long historical lineage of white-on-black oppression.
It seems fitting, possibly now more than ever, that we breathe new life into Ellison’s text by exploring its theatrical potential. In pairing the novel’s charged, surreal and deeply moving narrative with live cello and percussion, we are embarking on a process of bringing The Invisible Man to the stage.
We begin our first day of workshops at the Arcola Theatre with a discussion; I sat down with co-director Tinuke Craig to chat about her relationship with the novel and her creative approach.
Eloquent, passionate and wonderfully cool, this is what she had to say:
NATHAN: Tinu, hello!
NATHAN: Tell me: how did you first discover this novel and what was your initial response to it?
TINUKE: Well, I first discovered The Invisible Man when I was at University; I was studying James Baldwin – doing my dissertation on his work – and Ralph Ellison kept coming up as another writer worth reading. What struck me then was how honest it was. It was dealing with a set of emotions that I’d heard my Dad and my brother talk about but I’d never really seen represented in literature.
NATHAN: So, forgive the obvious question, but…why now? It’s undeniable that the issues Ellison explores are still incredibly pressing. Why do we need this adaptation in 2017?
TINUKE: I think we need it partly as a reminder. It’s so easy to dismiss these issues as “no longer relevant”, when in fact they might be more relevant than ever.
It’s also important to consider that The Man in the novel isn’t the kind of character that “typical theatre audiences” will come into contact with very often. We spend a lot of time with him, hearing him speak. There’s something vital about bringing those two types of people together, especially now.
NATHAN: In his introduction of the novel, Ellison writes: ‘I felt that one of the ever-present challenges facing the American novelist was that of endowing his inarticulate characters, scenes and social processes with eloquence. For it is by such attempts that he fulfills his social responsibility as an American artist.’ Is that something you consider to be true and relevant for modern theatre makers/artists?
TINUKE: I actually don’t agree with Ellison there. I think there’s something really important in letting people speak in their own voices and asking audiences to do the work. If someone leaves their estate in Tower Hamlets to see The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre, I doubt anyone is going to make a huge effort to help them understand it.
That being said, I do think there’s something really exciting and refreshing about hearing a black male from the 1950’s speaking in this incredibly poeticised and lyrical way; it upends the audience’s expectations of that character. The mismatch between an audience’s preconceived prejudices and the words coming out of the character’s mouth is a really useful textural device.
NATHAN: It’s safe to say that the pairing of text and live music is instrumental (sorry) to this particular adaptation. How are you approaching the marrying of these elements
TINUKE: Well, when I’m not directing plays I run choirs, so I spend a lot of my time around musicians, and Ellison writes very musically. He’s incredibly clever in his use of pace and rhythm; he builds readers up with lists and paragraphs and extremely complex sentences before suddenly bringing us into something more staccato.
There’s also lot of wonderful things about the cello specifically. Not only is the register similar to the human vocal register, but you literally have to wrap yourself around it in order to play. It’s an incredibly connected and personal instrument with an inherent theatrically. It’s exciting to watch someone play it. It’s physical, too – you really break a sweat playing the cello in a way that you don’t playing the flute.
No shade to flautists, of course.
NATHAN: Of course.
TINUKE: It’s also exciting to explore the pairing of a classical instrument like the cello and what is, in some ways – vocally and rhythmically – a jazz novel.
NATHAN: And Ellison was a musician himself?
TINUKE: Yes, a cellist! It’s fascinating to think about what kind of musician he would have become, were he born in a different time or skin. There are entire generations of black musicians who trained classically but had to play jazz in order to make a living. Nina Simone could have been the greatest classical pianist of her generation, but she simply wasn’t allowed into those spaces. I mean, the world got Nina Simone, so yay! – but she also wanted to play Carnige Hall.
NATHAN: One final question, what are you most excited/nervous/interested in tackling over the course of this R&D week?
TINUKE: What I’m very keen to crack is finding a truly meaningful connection between the voice and the instruments. I want to interrogate why the cello and drums are being played live on stage in order to create a music-text connection that really means something.
NATHAN: Brill. Thanks Tinu.
TINUKE: No worries!
NATHAN: I love your jumper, can I have it?
TINUKE: Sure, here it is!
(That last exchange didn’t actually happen but I was *this* close)
So that was Tinuke Craig! Visit the blog again tomorrow for an update on the work we’ve done so far and more thoughts from our wonderful cast and creatives.
– Your blogger/roving reporter/social media wizard, Nathan Foad