DAY THREE: The Generosity of Ellison.

We’re at the halfway point!

It seems impossible to think we’re on our third day of R&D at the Arcola Theatre. In some ways it feels like we only just started and in others it seems as though we’ve been furiously exploring Ellison’s text for an age.

I come to you from the back of the rehearsal room, watching as the cast and creatives fuse their beautiful musical compositions with Clarence’s performance. As I type, our composer, Milton Mermikides, is discussing the musical interludes he has constructed in order to allow the performance proper space to breathe; moments of calm and clarity that arrive after the piece’s most intense bursts.  It’s a wonderful privilege to be privy to such an electric and collaborative creative process, and as I observe I wanted to take a moment to tell you a little bit about Ralph Ellison.

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Something that you may not know about Ellison’s The Invisible Man is that he fully intended it to be open for interpretation; many consider it a definitive novel about the black experience, but he has stated that this is one of many potential readings.

When I was a kid, I read the English novels. I read Russian translations and so on,” he said in 1983. “And always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero. Literature is integrated. And I’m not just talking about color, race. I’m talking about the power of literature to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience.”

Reading these words reminds us of Ralph’s overwhelming generosity. I’m sure he didn’t think of this as a generous act; he was simply being a thoughtful writer – but to this reader in 2017 it feels incredibly profound.

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When I spoke to our performance, Clarence Smith, in yesterday’s blog, he marvelled at the transcended quality of Ellison’s writing:

“It transcends race, gender, sexuality. It’s about bigger, broader issues…In fact, now I think about it – I don’t think the protagonist’s blackness is even mentioned in the prologue? He is more of an entity: an ‘it’ or ‘them’ as opposed to a ‘he’”

What a wonderful gift Ellison has given his readers. In this explosive and heart breaking story of black oppression and self-discovery, he weaves in such delicate universal truths for audiences of all identities to absorb. We, of course, do not expect this of him. It speaks to a certain level of entitlement for a reader (particularly a white reader such as myself) to expect a reflection of their own experience in everything they consume. We could simply read his words, marvel at his resilience and enjoy his writing without finding a common thread. Yet he still chooses to reach out across barriers of colour, gender and class; he extends his influence despite the specificity of his experience.

It is truly remarkable.

An easy thing for me to do right now would be to list the ways in which I am marginalised and the specific nuances of Ellison’s writing and how they apply to me- and believe me, I nearly did that, but I feel like I’d be hugely missing the point. I just wanted to, in my own small way, recognise and appreciate the generous spirit alive in Ellison’s work.

His work is an allegory for which I (and generations of readers) am hugely grateful.

– Nathan.

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