FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. All Aboard!

 

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

 

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!!”

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

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 Sizeand 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.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey's fine set.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey’s fine set.

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Big in Every Way: THE BROTHERS SIZE at Manbites Dog Theater through September 29

Alphonse Nicholson, Thaddaeus Edwards, and Kashif Powell (background)
in THE BROTHERS SIZE. Photo: Michael McCullough.

Leaving the theater on opening night of The Brothers Size, I had the oddest sensation of entering an imaginary world as I stepped into the cozy bright lobby. Inside the dark theater, we’d been immersed in a rough reality, overwashed with waves of a mystic reality. Subsumed as a group in the rhythmic drumming, our hearts beat together with those of the characters before us, locked with them into the sustained intensity of their struggles. Outside, there were cakes and wine, smart chat, separate parties. Life seemed pale beside this art.

The Brothers Size (which runs about 100 minutes without intermission) is part of a trilogy by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It debuted in 2007, when the author was only 27 years old. It’s an amazing script, in terms of character, story, intensity, clarity and inventiveness. Some may find elements of the language distasteful, but it all seemed appropriate to the people and situation. A white person could not have written this, though, and there is no fashionable cross-race casting. These three characters are black men, as well as representing three of the Yoruba orisa, and they need to be played by black men.

Ogun Size is a hard man, like his namesake, and has built himself a car repair business. His main concerns are survival and protection, and he comes on singing, like a work chant, “this road is rough.” Kashif Powell, in a coverall, plays Ogun with almost unbearable rigid force. His younger brother, Oshoosi Size, has recently gotten out of prison and is living with Ogun. Oshoosi is concerned with freedom—with being and feeling free—and J. Alphonse Nicholson gives him a fluid, willowy physicality. (Jeremy V. Morris will portray this role in the second half of the play’s run.) Elegba—deity of the crossroads, and a trickster—is Oshoosi’s friend from prison. Thaddaeus Edwards, all in black, with a black sequined belt, gives the seductive Elegba a sly, knowing look as he glides in and out the scenes, instigating.

Working with director Joseph Megel, and with the aid of drummer Teli S. Shabu, the brothers engage in a dance of thought and feeling, with outbursts of song. They dance all around the idea of freedom. Do you live hard or live easy? Prison is not the only lockup. You can be stuck like a stone, unfree in other ways. Some you can escape, but you can never escape your brother. He will always be your brother: You will call for him; you will let him go; you will not leave him behind—and his inescapability is another kind of freedom.

Near the show’s end, the two brothers Size sum up the method for reconciling their differing characters, which Elegba has set at odds. In Derrick Ivey’s bleak set made of rope and old tires, they put on Otis Redding, and “Try a Little Tenderness” blossoms from their throats. Young girls are not the only ones who get weary on the rough road. Even a man hard as iron needs that balm.

This article was first published in The Independent Weekly, appearing in print with the headline “Tall tales and karaoke nights.” It is available on www.indyweek.com. The original contained an author error, corrected on the Indy site and above. Correction: Running time is about 100 minutes (not 140 minutes).

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