Published in 1994, E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life was listed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 20 “classic works of gay literature.” The book’s success launched a prolific writing career for Harris, which garnered numerous awards and pushed 10 of his novels onto the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Harris died in July 2009; he’s considered one of the most successful African American or gay authors of his time.
When the cast of Invisible Life takes its final bow tonight, the largest bow will be one of gratitude from the show’s co-writer and director, Proteus Spann, who has had to overcome Herculean odds to bring the work to the stage. The sold-out showcase was but one stop on the long road which he hopes leads to Broadway.
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By bringing Invisible Life to the stage, Spann hopes he can jump start much-needed conversations in the Black community which Harris tried to do when he published the series. The lyrics of Ashford & Simpson’s original score, written especially for the musical, explore themes of HIV and AIDS, father-son relationships, as well as the church’s response to sexuality. And though it may seem odd to entrust the gravity of these issues to song and dance, history makes Spann confident the message will be heard.
“It’s the next ‘RENT,’” explains Spann, referencing Jonathan Larson’s wildly popular Broadway musical. “We had Angels in America; we had Normal Heart with Larry Kramer . . . .this is our opportunity to tell our story by ourselves.”
To tell the story, Spann has enlisted the help of a decorated troupe of talented actors, whose respective awards and credits turn the Apollo stage into a pantheon of theatre talent. Between them you’ll find three TONY nominations, a Grammy nomination and separate Grammy win, along with a stint on two separate reality shows, and a host of notable theatre awards for numerous respective roles across various Broadway stages. Combining their voices with the soulful lyrics of iconic musical duo, Spann has created a work that is poignant, thoughtful, and moving.
Spann notes that the controversies of the musical are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago when the book was penned; which helps him to create a musical that resonates through the ages.
“My goal is to make [Invisible Life] timeless,” he says, “where 20 years from now it’ll still resonate and it’ll still be great,” withstanding the test of time in much the same way as classics like “The Wiz,” and “Dreamgirls.”
Invisible Life centers around “Raymond Tyler Jr.”, a young Black collegiate athlete turned successful lawyer whose life is thrown into an upheaval when he recognizes his romantic feelings for women and men. Gregory Williams thoroughly embodies the physical manifestation of Raymond’s struggles in a powerful performance that is visceral, raw, and real. He shares the stage with SJ Hannah who delights in his turn as “Basil,” Raymond’s male love interest. The two portray separate sides of the same coin, exposing the very real question that plagues bisexual men: to confess or keep quiet.
Milton Craig Nealy’s thunderous performance as “Raymond Tyler, Sr.,” breathes new life into the familiar role of the disapproving Christian conservative father. Rather than the typical headstrong patriarch, we are shown a man who actively works to maintain his family dynamic, even if it means re-evaluating personal beliefs.
He is bolstered by the unconditionally supportive “Mama Tyler,” played by Brenda Braxton, who serves as the compassionate foil to her husband. Braxton takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, belting out woeful tunes one minute and delivering knee-slapping pantomime and witty one-liners the next.
The trifecta of Broadway notables is complete when Vivian Reed takes the stage in an uproariously funny turn as “Aunt Susan.” She works wonders as the over sexualized, long-in-the-tooth aunt whose comedic relief adds levity to an otherwise somber tale.
Raymond’s best friends, “JJ” and “Kyle,” are played by Frenchie Davis and Terry Lavell, respectively, who have both graced the Great White Way a time or two. An understated Frenchie Davis serves as the voice of reason in Raymond’s female best friend, JJ, putting Davis on the very same stage she powerfully commanded only two weeks prior in her show, “The Frenchie Davis Experience.”
The ying to her yang is the spirited Kyle Benton, played by Terry Lavell, whose “fierce” and “fabulous” antics bring the audience to its feet in a chorus of “yaassssss” and “slaayyyy,” as the his androgynous character spits witty, biting jabs in rapid-fire succession. Performing his own single, “Born This Way,” Terry Lavell delivers a high-energy, tour-de-force performance that, arguably, serves as the piece de resistance of the play.
Soon to join the notable ranks of her more seasoned castmates, Danea Osseni gives a breathtaking performance as Raymond’s female love interest, “Nicole.” Poised and demure, it’s shocking to hear the powerful, crystal clear notes that emanate from her and we are left slack-jawed by her gripping tale of heartbreak.
In staging Invisible Life, The Musical, Spann hoped not only to tackle the various issues laid out in Harris’s book; he also hoped to tell a story that, ultimately rests on one of the oldest universal themes: love.
“Invisible Life is a classic American love story,” says Spann. It’s about the boy and the girl. . . and the boy, in this case.”