Hill helps bring Invisible Man project to life

Lena Hill in her office.

Lena Hill, assistant professor of English and African-American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Photo by Tim Schoon.

There are also series of fortunate events.

And one such series, involving Lena Hill, assistant professor of English and African-American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has given rise to “Iowa and Invisible Man: Making Blackness Visible,” a multimedia and multidisciplinary project that will examine the black experience at the University of Iowa and culminate in a staged reading of a theatrical version of Ralph Ellison’s novel on Saturday, Dec. 3, in Shambaugh Auditorium at the UI Main Library. The reading is in preparation for the first-ever stage adaptation of Invisible Man, set to open in Chicago in early 2012.

How did Hill get in the middle of all of that?

Her scholarly work, “The Visual Art of Invisible Man: Ellison’s Portrait of Blackness,” was published in American Literature, which was read by New York City producer and director Chris McElroen as he was researching Invisible Man, which he hopes to turn into a stage play.

McElroen emailed Hill to suggest a residency that would lead to a staged reading of a play. Fortunately, Hill had previously participated in the UI’s Creative Campus Institute, which acquainted her with Chuck Swanson, executive director of the UI’s Hancher, who became an early advocate of the proposal.

Following a brainstorming session, the project was expanded from a staged reading of Invisible Man to an in-depth examination of the black experience at the UI through public panel discussions and lectures, a radio and TV show, and involvement in undergraduate classes. The entire project will be “magical,” Hill promises.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Hill about the novel and the project.

When did you first read Invisible Man?
I first read Invisible Man during my doctoral course work. And it just so happened that my initial encounter with Ellison’s novel coincided with my study of Henry James and his investment in visual culture. Ellison talks a good deal about his interest in James, and for me, the experience of reading these two very different authors heightened my attention to similarities in their work. So from the first time that I read Invisible Man, I was interested in its visual aspects.

Visit www.hancher.uiowa.edu/
for more information about the multimedia project.

How did producer Chris McElroen find you?
I published an article on Invisible Man in American Literature in 2009, and Chris came across the essay. That’s when he emailed me. I didn’t know that the play was being adapted for the stage. He asked, “Is there a way that we could make a residency happen where we could work together on the visual aspects of staging this play?”

And you had recently met people on campus who could help?
Yes, I had been part of the Creative Campus Institute, which was supported by Hancher and the Center for Teaching and brought together scholars from across the campus with the idea of trying to encourage faculty to incorporate performance into the classroom. So after hearing from Chris, I emailed Chuck [Swanson], saying “What do you think?” And he emailed back, “This sounds really interesting!” and we’ve never stopped talking since that day. I have to say it’s been so amazing to work with Chuck.

As an assistant professor, I had not been involved in planning such a big project. So we first just had a brainstorming session with Chuck, my husband Michael Hill, Teresa Mangum, Jean Florman, and Mary Mathew Wilson, just thinking about how to go about this. That’s how we decided to expand it beyond the play, to think about the African-American experience at mid-century. And I think it’s going to be fabulous!

What will you take away from this and use in your teaching and life?
The planning of it has opened my eyes to how different entities across the UI can work together to make something magical happen. This is going to be an amazing opportunity not only for the university community, but also for the larger Iowa City and Cedar Rapids communities. I am also excited about introducing students to the ways literature can come alive. Invisible Man is a challenging novel, and I think students will appreciate participating in its translation to the stage.

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