The New Federal Theatre in association with Castillo Theatre has produced the most captivating one man show I’ve ever seen. Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green is a poetic and poignant theatrical experience.
We follow Abel Green (J. Alphonse Nicholson) through five lifetimes. Each time we meet Abel he is sitting in a train car in a different part of America, in a different decade. In each lifetime, Abel brings to light his present story, and with it he personifies deep questions that have complicated answers. For example, as an African American minstrel in the 1920s, he discusses how he is trying to make a living in show business, but other colored people of the time do not feel that way about his profession. It called to mind the controversy that surrounds actor Lincoln Perry, best known for playing Stepin Fetchit. Each incarnation deals with varying degrees of betraying fellow African Americans: a religious man turned miracle worker in order to make a profit in the 1930s, an FBI informant on the Black Panthers in the 1960s, an actor struggling with personal relationships during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and a now-homeless former seller of subprime mortgages before the housing crisis in the early 2000s.
From one incarnation to the next Abel Green grapples with taking advantage of other black people and minorities, on a personal level or on a larger scale. In some cases Abel is taken advantage of by others. In each case he is surrounded by the incarnations of others who play a similar role in each lifetime. He tells his story from a train car, symbolizing his journey in this life and the next one, and each time he is attempting to make his wrongs right.
Choosing tense historical moments with ambiguous moral and cultural effects, Howard L. Craft builds an incredible narrative with each poetic word. His writing is absolutely perfect. Every incarnation connects to or calls back to the previous one in subtle and powerful ways. Joseph Megel’s direction high lights every poetic moment using every theatrical element available to him. He has J. Alphonse Nicholson use as much of the space as possible and Nicholson has made the use of that space necessary to the telling the story.
J. Alphonse Nicholson is incredible. He shows us Abel Green’s story with his whole body and voice. While capturing the lingo and minute gestures common to each era, he creates and maintains the essence of Abel Green in each incarnation. Every character he quotes (as Abel Green) is so clear and different that I felt as though I were watching a full cast. Nicholson also sings, and has composed some original music for the show.
The elements of design are so cohesive – this is most evident during the transitions between incarnations. During each transition, projected images and sound (designed by Eamonn Farrell) laid out the climate of each era, while the train car and the character changeover. The train car setting designed by Chris Cumberbatch is simple and versatile; lighting by Antoinette Tynes added new and subtle qualities to each train car. I appreciate that we see Nicholson change shoes, clothes and props onstage, and Gail Cooper-Hecht’s costume design demonstrates clear differences in character and place in time.
Storytellers often string together events, feelings, moments and speech into stories that entertain or speak on a theme, yet it feels rare to me that stories are thematically crafted in such a way that stirs spirit and shifts consciousness. Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green is one such story.
Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green; New Federal Theatre with Castillo Theater, 543 w. 42nd Street, New York. General Admission, $40. Closes November 19th.
Tickets at http://www.castillo.org/freight-2017/