StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance premiered Howard L. Craft‘s new play on January 9 in Swain Hall on the UNC campus. Nine days into the new year and I have to tell you that the production is likely at the end of the year to be on the short list of year’s best, such is its momentum. This train carries FREIGHT until January 24. Catch it or kick yourself into next year. You can remember that hyperbolic sentence when the play sends up theatrical reviews in one of its many comic moments: “A Five Star Review!!”
FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green uses trains to provide transportation for Abel through physical space, but also as a metaphor for travel through time. Playwright Craft, who lives in Durham, has already demonstrated interest in the episodic nature of life, the fluid properties of time, and in heroes and super-heroes, but in this script he commands his ideas and stories with a greatly increased level of sophistication and confidence. Starting with his character’s name–the first man murdered, and by his brother–he makes artistic choices that hit like a blunt instrument or slice like a razor. In FREIGHT, one actor portrays five men named Abel Green who live at different periods over a hundred-year span in the US. Each of these black men tells his dramatic story in a 20-minute segment which glides seamlessly into the next, with echoes from the past sounding in future after future. The script would be fascinating even if it were not loaded with highly quotable lines, and part of what’s fascinating is the way Craft is able to say some very tough things so that even white people can hear them.
“All Negroes are actors by necessity.” So says Abel the Minstrel, who we meet as he hops a freight car circa 1910 to go on to his next gig. We’ll live longer, he says, if we know our lines for whites, but we can do improv with other Negroes. He’s been part of a three-man troupe–another hoofer and a front man who can pass for white–but after a horrific lynching, described in nauseating detail, he finds himself traveling alone. His partner just couldn’t take it any more. But Abel is younger and wants “to have the money not to live like a nigger even I have to play one on stage to get it…I keep dancin’ and smilin’ and they pay me for that.” Then he quotes Paul Laurence Dunbar: “let the mask hide my eyes.”
This section is the most fully fleshed of the play. It began as Craft’s response to the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, in the Ackland Art Museum collection. “The Minstrel” was directed by Joseph Megel and acted by J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the Ackland gallery; eventually the minstrel’s tale multiplied into the five incarnations of Abel Green. None of the other sections is lacking–“The Snitch” is particularly strong–but none is quite as thoroughly massaged as “The Minstrel.”
Craft’s writing is finely honed, full of poetry, but J. Alphonse Nicholson breathes life into the still syllables. Nicholson is a natural, which is not to say he is not continually honing his art. Perhaps because he started so young, before his heart had had time to harden and wall itself in, he has an almost uncanny ability to assume the characters he plays. But this performance goes far beyond his previous work. In 99 minutes, he takes on and radiates out the pain of generations and the exquisite philosophic particularity of the individuals who felt it, and every single minute feels true. His memory is prodigious–on opening night I heard one tiny stumble. In addition to being empathically talented, tall, dark and handsome, he can sing, dance and drum. FREIGHT takes on an even greater load of poignancy with this young actor portraying not just the minstrel, but an 80s film actor whose success involves being killed in various ways on-screen by the “white vigilante hero.” I want to say that big, big success is Alphonse Nicholson’s to throw away–but have a few years changed America enough to let him bloom forth? You wouldn’t know it from following the news. Even in the post-performance glow, and now even more, I’m haunted by the idea of this cheerful ambitious young man being torqued or broken by the same cruelties and corruptive associates that account for assorted suicides and other deaths in Craft’s script.
One reason Nicholson has been able to build his skills so rapidly is Joseph Megel, who is as delicate and unflinching in his direction as a neurosurgeon. Megel, the artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH, directed Nicholson his first time out, in 2009, in Howard L. Craft’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders* (after nurturing the play at UNC), and later in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot ; also in The Brothers Size, and in the Activated Art project at the Ackland Museum. So a lot of trust has been built up, over years, among director, actor and playwright. That trust makes this quality of art possible.
Megel and producer Elisabeth Lewis Corley put together a design team who completed the experiential package and transformed the gloomy studio in Swain Hall. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting is very fine, and Eamonn Farrell’s video and sound are essential to powerful fiction of time travel. Marissa Erickson created communicative costuming that also allows Nicholson to morph from Abel to Abel with speed and grace. Derrick Ivey designed the wonderful set with its arches, spans and sliding train cars. You can buy your ticket here.
*An earlier version of this review had erroneously described Caleb Calypso as Craft’s first full-length play. In fact, Craft had written several plays before that, and his earliest full-length work is The House of George, which received a production in 2002. Several of Craft’s works were produced at NCCU before anyone on the other side of the Durham Freeway paid any attention. A new one-act by Craft will be included in the forthcoming REDBIRD festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in March, 2015. The Star regrets the error.