by Rebecca Epp
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – “I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe… I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I recently traveled to Chicago with five classmates and Professor Megan Upton-Tyner for the Studies in Drama Bethel College interterm class. The first night in Chicago, we saw a world premiere performance of Invisible Man at the Court Theatre.
Oren Jacoby adapted the play from Ralph Ellison’s novel, and stuck to all original text. Invisible Man follows the life of a nameless African-American protagonist who moves from the South to New York City in search of a job. He is eventually forced to hide underground and stages a silent battle with society, fighting against racism and corruption.
Invisible Man struggles with the question of identity. How does one find their identity in a country that is forcing them to assimilate? A world that is hiding them away in separate areas based on color of skin?
Invisibility and identity quickly became themes of our time in Chicago. While there, we took a tour through some of the “invisible” communities of the city, communities of lower socioeconomic status.
Chicago is still a highly segregated city with different cultural groups keeping strictly to their own neighborhoods. Suddenly the signs change from Chinese to Spanish after crossing the street. Tight-knit ethnic communities live side by side in their separate neighborhoods.
The second night in Chicago, we went to the Steppenwolf Theatre to see Time Stands Still, which we had read in class previous to the trip. It follows a couple, Sarah and James, who are forced to question their identity as a couple, as individuals and as war reporters/photojournalists.
On our last night, we saw Home/Land, written and performed by the Albany Park Theater Project. The company of teenagers put together a beautiful collage of tales from immigrants in the United States, written in documentary theater style and based on real-life interviews that focused on immigration and assimilation issues.
Many of the characters in the play struggled to find their place as Americans without losing their cultural heritage. I watched as characters protected themselves, but also fought for their rights to be not just an “American,” not just a “Mexican American.” They were fighting to be free people with their own identities.
One idea I will take away from this trip is that identity cannot come from a single element. It has to move in tandem with your life, ever changing as you change.
Theater is a fantastic medium in which to document these questions of identity and ultimately a question of acceptance. How can we make our world a more tolerating place so that people can embrace who they truly are without fear of judgment or reproach? How can we accept the invisible?
Rebecca Epp is a sophomore from Newton. Other members of Megan Upton-Tyner’s Studies in Drama class who participated in the Chicago trip, Jan. 18-22, were Michael Bowman, Pueblo, Colo., Cody Claassen, Whitewater, Annika Janzen, Fresno, Calif., Dalton Smith, Burrton, and Mycah Westhoff, Newton.