Even those who’ve witnessed the impressive trajectories of playwright Howard L. Craft and actor J. Alphonse Nicholson over the years will likely be unprepared for their stunning convergence in “Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green.” This imaginative production by StreetSigns Center For Literature and Performance examines the African-American male over the past century with moving and gripping impact.
Craft’s intriguing premise has the same actor play a man called Abel Green in five time periods, from the early 1900s to the present. Although they’re not the same person, these men are connected through America’s racial, political and social injustices. Each 20-minute monolog reveals one man’s troubles brought on not only by outside factors but also by his own flaws and desires. Craft links these stories further by setting them on and around trains, representing journeys taken and still to come.
Nicholson reaches new levels of confidence and sensitivity inhabiting these characters, each facial expression and body position signaling as much as his words. As a resourceful minstrel at the turn of the previous century, Nicholson tells a chilling story of witnessing a black man’s murder by the same people he must later perform for.
As a 1930s preacher whose money-minded congregational leaders convince him he’s a faith healer, Nicholson affectingly conveys the anguish and guilt of learning the truth. Additional portrayals of a 1960s Black Panther turned FBI snitch, a 1980’s film star who turns his back on a dying mentor, and a present-day opportunist who ruins lives selling untenable mortgages, all have emotionally riveting moments.
Estimable director Joseph Megel supplies a polished, organic flow, the staging creatively varied. He’s tremendously aided by Derrick Ivey’s ingenious settings, Kathy A. Perkins’ mood-inducing lighting and Eamonn Farrell’s stage-filling video projections and ambient sound designs.
At Thursday’s public preview, Nicholson seemed less involved in the last two characters, partly because 100 unbroken minutes can test endurance, but also because Craft’s delineation of them is more generic and didactic than the first three.
That shouldn’t stop anyone from experiencing this laudable achievement. It’s not too early to call this show one of the year’s best.