Some novel approaches to discussing race at UI

By Lena Hill
From the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Some novels deserve multiple readings. Some issues deserve sustained attention. And some relationships make things happen.

“Iowa and ‘Invisible Man’: Making Blackness Visible” will give audiences an opportunity to contemplate Ralph Ellison’s 1952 award-winning novel, “Invisible Man,” from a new perspective. With the help of the University of Iowa, Ellison’s fictional discussion of blackness also will join the ranks of great drama.

Hancher, together with numerous campus sponsors, is hosting a residency to support the development of the world premiere stage adaptation of “Invisible Man.” New York-based director and producer Christopher McElroen is spending this week working on visual elements of the play in preparation for its opening in Chicago in early 2012. The residency will conclude with a public reading featuring UI Theatre Arts students and local actors.

And how did UI come to host this exciting project? Few people recognize that UI shares a unique relationship with Ellison and the issues at the heart of his novel.

Fanny McConnell, Ellison’s wife, graduated from UI in 1936 with a degree in drama and memories colored by the times: She was prohibited from acting on the stage because of Jim Crow laws. Nevertheless, by 1959 Fanny Ellison could write to a friend that though her alma mater had been “full of prejudice and things were awkward for all Negro students,” she had since heard that “all that’s changed. One just has to live long enough.”

McElroen had Fanny Ellison’s history in mind when he discovered my critical article on the visual elements of “Invisible Man.” He felt certain that collaboration would prove valuable to the development of the play.

Serendipity also played a role. When McElroen contacted me, I had just participated in the Creative Campus Institute sponsored by Hancher and the UI Center for Teaching. I immediately contacted Chuck Swanson, director of Hancher, whose dedication to supporting faculty from various disciplines invested in the arts made him an energetic proponent. Swanson immediately assumed the lead in spearheading the project.

Swanson and I realized that the arc connecting Fanny Ellison’s years at UI to her later reflections offered an opportunity to reflect on a difficult time in UI’s past. Her experience vivifies the road UI has traveled in its longstanding commitment to improving race relations.

Events kicked off Tuesday with a panel in which black alumni shared personal accounts of their campus experiences during the 1950s. Today’s events include a roundtable discussion of the literary past and theatrical future of “Invisible Man” and a public dialogue at the African American Museum of Iowa. Events continue Thursday in the Iowa Memorial Union with a lecture on UI alumna Elizabeth Catlett and her sculpture, “Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison,” as well as at 7 p.m. in Shambaugh Auditorium with a facilitated discussion exploring issues of perception and difference in a contemporary context.

Joan Kjaer’s live WorldCanvass radio and television program will provide an enlightening discussion and prepare audiences for the staged reading. Starting at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, Kjaer’s interviews will feature UI professors, the producer/director and the writer of the play. The staged reading will be at 7 p.m. Saturday in Shambaugh Auditorium.

You will not want to miss this opportunity to use literature as a lens to look back on the legacy of race at UI and to look forward to possibilities for dialogue born of a new medium for “Invisible Man.”

Who says novels, interdisciplinary work and cross-campus connections no longer relate to significant issues of our times?

Lena Hill is an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Iowa.

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