by Allison S. Curseen
The black literary and artistic tradition is an ongoing exploration of the relationship between movement and constraint, and Howard Craft’s Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green [dir. Joseph Megel] situates itself thoroughly in that tradition. Indeed spanning most of the 20th century, Freight touches upon several figures, places, and themes that loom large in the black imagination. Playfully smart and emotionally gripping, this five-act, one-man show introduces us to several incarnations of a black man named Abel Green (J. Alphonse Nicholson). In 90 minutes, we see Green as a blackface minstrel performer; charismatic religious healer; FBI informant; screen actor; and stock broker. Individually and as a whole, these incarnations demonstrate the tricky negotiation between tight spaces and fantastic movement black actors (which is to say black peoples) in America must perform.
Echoing the rumbling chords of Houston’s Baker’s blues ideology, the play foregrounds the space of the train car as its most overt figuration of the paradoxical relationship between movement and constraint in black life and artistic expression. Each incarnation of Abel Green appears within the tomb-like box of a single train car. In the New York production at the Here Theater, the freight car is signified by a video projection of moving landscape. Within the at once always-moving and still-stationary confines of the box (car), Green both actualizes (in his often fugitive travels) and imagine (in his narrative relaying) escape from racialized violence. From the very beginning, Freight asks us to recognize in this tight space, which Green inhabits only to “get somewhere,” the possibility of rebirth, flight, relation, and other worldly movements that exceed that “somewhere” he initially meant to “get.”
The different incarnations that are all the same Abel Green along with the stationary car that is always moving and full of movement manifest what Baker called “‘the changing same’ matrix” of black vernacular culture. Indeed structurally Freight unfolds like blues riffs or jazz-like variations on a theme. The first act (which Craft originally wrote as a standalone piece) establishes the standard places, characters, and themes (i.e. the violence of the white gaze, compromised black performances, betrayal, and the redemption of a black Judas figure). The remaining four acts replay these themes using recurring elements as a kind of working lexicon: Green is always a black American; he is always an (essentially) orphaned young man; he is always taken up by a mentor; and he is of course always a gifted (able) performer. Every incarnation also involves a similar cast of associates: a mentor named William (Wilma) Benson; an angelic Mary Bingham; and a shady opportunist aptly named, Alonzo Price. Additionally, in each incarnation, Jefferson (as street or town) is always a site of racial conflict.
Early on Freight explicitly connects this jazz-like structure and the changing same of the freight car to the performative tools necessary for black life in America. “All Negroes are actors by necessity,” the first Green tells us. “The script is passed down generation to generation, and the Negroes that know their lines tend to live longer than the Negroes that don’t.” He goes on to distinguish this script for “dealing with white folks” from “dealing with other Negroes.” When it comes to the creative and turbulent fluxes of black social life, Green explains, “Memorization won’t help. Negroes be changing on the daily.” This tension between a fixed white script (assigning black people the same limited role) and an ever-changing (and escaping) black performance is the central tension of Freight. As black man, actor, and particularly as black actor, Green is always being captured, if not in a trunk, at the end of a rope or a barrel of a gun, or in jail, then under the gaze of white lynch mobs, white audiences, white reviewers, and near-white middle men. This constant risk of capture is amplified in Freight by the inevitably meta-relationship between Green and the actor performing him. By virtue of the premise, the actor performing Green (presuming no experimental casting with a white actor) will always also be a one-man, black performer susceptible to a white gaze, always being captured as he tries to captivate. With remarkable skill, immediacy, and heart Nicholson embraces the complexities of this relationship, brings it to life. Indeed so much of Nicholson is in Green. Having been a part of the creation of the original one act, the first North Carolina production, and now its NYC production, much of what we understand as Green is Nicholson’s own addition (i.e. the percussion performances and the lyrical dance like movements between acts). The “changing same” contrast between script and improvisation; between black mask and intimate face; constant death and new birth; stasis and movement are all brought together in Nicholson’s tour de force performance.
Where the smartness of Craft’s script runs the risk of being flattened by an actor and/or director desiring to hit every poignant beat, Nicholson (an actual percussionist) finds the space between the beats where the possible is swelling and exceeding capture. Put simply, Nicholson is always moving. With impressively nuanced control of his visage and physical comportment, one moment Nicholson is downstage almost leaning into the audience with eager recognition; another moment he is slightly bent, far away, near tears and nausea, examining the site of a recent lynching. Minutes later—wide-eyed, erect, with limbs stretched long, and fingers splayed—he somberly performs a darkly humorous minstrel song. Every gesture makes more space, another relation, and a possible way out. Even between acts, Nicholson is moving and transforming. Indeed in the dimly lit but still visible transitions, the tomb of the freight car becomes a womb, quickening with the rhythmic and stylized movements of Nicholson’s set and costume changes. The traditionally invisible labor of stagehands dressed in black is visible here as the labor of incarnation. Nicholson’s stylized movements resist representation and go beyond the linear destination-oriented movement of the train. Between acts there is no particular Green, only a constant becoming that while not hidden, eludes capture.
Freight as Green as Nicholson’s ability to refuse capture is perhaps best communicated by relaying a moment which cannot be repeated, a moment that now must be imagined: On the last Wednesday run of Freight, there sat a petite, white woman in the front row taking pictures with her iPhone (complete with shutter sound effect). Poor theater etiquette aside, the ease with which the woman felt she could interrupt and capture Nicholson’s image and the labor of his dramatic practice (as well as the labor of the unseen set designers, lighting designers, director, writer and others) flew in the face of the play’s explicit interrogation of black performers difficult negotiation of a violent white gaze. Her actions made clear how even as Freight invites us to revision the black performer’s mask as a potentially redemptive site of possibility, the show still remains vulnerable to the racial violence that has long prompted black leaders to encourage positive representation (think Civil Rights photographs and NAACP Image Awards) to render black people respectable and ready to be caught by a white gaze. However that Wednesday, Nicholson departed from this history of positive pandering to the camera, when he, as the homeless Abel Green wanting to go to Saturn, moved down stage, knelt at the apron’s edge, broke the fourth wall, looked the woman in her face, and with a tone I can only describe as respectfully badass, demanded, “Stop taking pictures of me, please.”
Allison S. Curseen is a poet and an assistant English professor at Baruch College, CUNY. Her current book project focuses on the relationship between performances of childishness and anxieties about fugitive departure in mid-19th century narratives.