1.“They know people trying to jump these trains, I don’t know why they don’t just slow ‘em down. Hell, I’d be willing to buy a ticket if they were free. But no, they force a gentleman to resort to these Philistine tactics, and then don’t even make it easy for him to do it.” It’s 1910. Abel Green, “The Minstrel,” has just hopped a freight car. Accent is uneducated southern. (I assume the word Philistine came from bible reading.) Syntax pitch perfect.
Green is on the way to his next show, a first outside of Captain Davenport’s Minstrel Troupe comprised of himself and mentor William Benson. The two were billed as “Willing and Able Bona Fide Darkies”- a novelty in musical entertainments ending with white men removing blackface. (These performers also wore blackface, but taking it off had impact.) Benson’s white cousin negotiated jobs as if he, not the artist, was the company’s impresario. Life was as secure as it could be during a particularly perilous era for “darkies.” The young man is grateful and still a bit naïve.
In the previous town, Green and Benson came across a negro burned, dismembered, lynched. Description is visceral. Reporting what they’d seen was unthinkable. The show went on as usual, but later that night Benson said he was done. Green has no choice but to continue. The country is hardly a land of opportunity. He gets into costume and sings an excerpt from “Nobody.” We’re invited to the show.
2. It’s the 1930s. The late Reverend William Benson gave Green a home at his church when the boy was an urchin survival-digging through garbage. One day, prayer and the laying on of hands works what’s perceived as a miracle. Green is dubbed “The Instrument of God.” An ambitious bishop takes charge, building a mega church. All Green has to do is cure. Uh huh.
3.“The Snitch” Facing time for armed robbery, Green makes a deal with the devil aka FBI Agent William Benson. It’s late 1960s. He’s to infiltrate The Black Panthers. The group’s philosophy is a revelation. Betrayal is fatal, but not in the way you expect.
4.“Do you want to know what it’s like being a black actor in 1988?” is followed by a litany of the ways “The Last Great Black Actor” finds himself killed off (early) in film. Speech is careful, practiced. School alumnus William Benson rescues Green from obscurity, but when the older man needs his protégé on a personal level, our hero lets bigotry and fake news keep him away.
5. Rising from a lower class background to shark mortgage broker, Green becomes stinking rich on others’ backs. When his machinations destroy the life of William Benson, Benson retaliates. Horrified, Green takes to the streets. Depending on your point of view, he’s either punished or saved becoming “The Saturn-Bound Man.”
Poet, playwright and arts educator Howard L. Craft has written a meditation on the consequences of how we treat our fellow man. He’s done this subtly, without proselytizing or pedantry, employing the premise of reincarnation – successive lives that improve or create struggle demanding hard lessons learned. Each parable manifests a pithy situation with imagination and context. Green both suffers and perpetuates suffering, often while exploiting his own people. A thoughtful and dramatic entertainment one can enjoy at many levels.
Alphonse Nicholson acts, sings, dances, and plays percussion with talent and focus. The artist maintains both sympathy and control even breaching a fourth wall. Each character is inhabited with wonderful specificity of speech, posture, gestures, even pacing. A performer whose career should be followed.
Director Joseph Megel steers his thespian with a sure and sensitive hand. We travel from joy and surprise to brutality and impotence without a glitch in credibility. Minimal set and stage are well utilized. Only the protagonist’s literally whirling into each incarnation seems off.
Chris Cumberbach’s morphing Set works wonderfully.
Gail Cooper-Hecht does an evocative job with Costume.
Sound/Project Designer Eamonn Farrell adds atmosphere ranging from evocative to ambiguous.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein.
Opening: The Minstrel
The Instrument of God; The Snitch
The Last Great Black Actor; The Saturn-Bound Man
Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre with Castillo Theatre presents
Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green by Howard L. Craft
Directed by Joseph Megel
Starring J. Alphonse Nicholson
543 West 42nd Street
Through November 19, 2017
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