by Mike Poblete · July 30, 2015
Speeding through the twentieth century on a metaphorical freight train; a minstrel, a faith healer, an FBI informant, an actor and a psychotic homeless man are the manifestations of a black man simultaneously surviving and exploiting a racially divided America in Howard L. Craft’s one man show Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green.
In the early 1900s, minstrel Abel performs in blackface for racist white audiences unsuspecting of his true skin color. The black newspapers skewer him for reinforcing stereotypes, but how else is he supposed to get by, to “not have to live like a nigger even if he had to play one on stage to be able to do it?” 1930s Faith healer Abel grows to prominence by healing a woman’s sight and takes over a church that dares preach that Jesus was black. The congregation, hungry for a closer connection to God, follows Abel, who believes that as an instrument of God he is exempt from the humility and poverty he preaches. 1960s FBI informant Abel is manipulated into spying on an alarming new threat to American security: the Black Panthers. Through their teaching he gains better understanding of himself and the world around him, even all the while snitching on his new friends and putting them in danger. 1980s actor Abel can only get stereotypical black extra film parts until his mentor Williams gives him meaningful roles. But when William reveals himself to be gay, and with AIDS, Abel flees from him, unable to return William’s gift of kindness. 2010 homeless Abel made a lot of money selling houses to black folks knowing that they would default. When one of his spurned clients shows up to his office with a gun and shoots everyone in sight, Abel goes crazy and moves into a homeless shanty town, hoping one day to be transported to Saturn and leave this world for good.
Craft’s writing is ambitious: the conflict of how to survive in a racist world by exploiting your own people throughout the changing century is a lot to articulate in ninety minutes. He largely succeeds: the storytelling is good and full of delicious moments. I found myself lost in thought after a number of provoking truisms from a deft literary hand: “A man’s life is like a page in a novel. In order to have a happy ending, a man’s got to write sentences that make a happy ending possible. You ain’t writing them kinds of sentences, son. Your paragraphs are all fucked up.” “All Negroes are actors by necessity. The script is passed down generation to generation. The Negroes who know they lines tend to live longer than the Negroes that don’t.” J. Alphonse Nicholson gives a captivating performance as the consistent, yet slowly modernizing Abel. Though a little young for the character(s)’ life experience, Nicholson has a dedicated physicality and tone that brings to life the sensibilities, enthusiasms and anxieties of each era.
Yet the piece as a whole is somewhat muddled. Each individual Abel is a fascinating character, but once the depths of each personality is revealed through the actions of their pragmatism coming to odds with their ethics, i.e. when things get really interesting, each story abruptly ends and we move onto the next Abel. Larger connecting themes between the different eras weren’t always apparent, such as the case with 1980s actor Abel whose conflict seemed to arise more from his being a bad friend than the larger social betrayal that is the signature of the other Abels. And at times certain phenomenon of the decade, like AIDS and the housing market collapse, felt forced in contrast to the organic growth of minstrel and Black Panther Abels, who felt more like natural products of their environments.
I left the theater not quite sure where Abel’s simultaneous mortal and immortal journey had brought him, or what I was supposed to have felt or learned from bearing witness. Yet I was also eager to talk to my date about some of the ideas broached, and the murmurs of shock and agreement from the audience throughout suggest I’m not the only one that found profundity in the show. Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green falls short of greatness due to a lack of cohesion between the five stories, but is nonetheless a fascinating thought experiment with powerful moments told with good acting. (Photo credit: Nick Graetz)