Review: FREIGHT at Fountain Theatre

J. Alphonse Nicholson time-hops with flair

By: Nov. 29, 2023
Review: FREIGHT at Fountain Theatre

Per playwright Howard L. Craft, the spirit of the human soul has the capacity to return to earth multiple times until it successfully learns…well…whatever it is supposed to learn. Can’t speak for the soul, but the performer J. Alphonse Nicholson needs no do-overs to embody the five incarnations of Abel Green within Craft’s play FREIGHT. Simply put, Nicholson nails each Green ably, in every possible way. 

Admittedly, Nicholson has had plenty of practice, having worked with Craft and director Joseph Mengel on FREIGHT since its North Carolina premiere in 2014 and subsequently off Broadway. The play’s west coast premiere, directed by Mengel at The Fountain Theatre, is a showpiece certainly for a multi-faceted actor and also for a challenging piece of drama. Set on a series of railway cars between the years 1910 and 2010, FREIGHT fits comfortably and aesthetically on the Fountain’s stage which has been decked out for the occasion by scenic designer Joel Daavid, lighting designer Alison Brummer, video designer Eamonn Farrell and sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett. From a box car to a subway car to a craft that suggests a rocket ship, Nicholson, Mengel and the design team take us on a journey.

Abel Green is our tour guide across the century, sometimes more reluctantly than others. In each year, the actor is a new character (always with the same name) on a different train - a minstrel, a faith healer, an actor – who faces some kind of test or crisis of faith. There are other recurrences across the century. Each Abel Green has a friend/co-worker/employer/enabler named William Benson. Characters named Alonzo Price and Mary Bingham time hop as well as a newsman named J.A. Sutter, and everybody ends up in or around the location of Jefferson. Clearly this particular bounty of wayward souls isn’t getting things right the first time and are finding each other anew through the ages.

But it’s all wrapped up in the person of Nicholson who enacts all the Abels while telling us about the people he encounters, and the fate he will meet. The actor engages easily with his audience, dispensing the congenial banter of a traveling minstrel, the cynicism of an FBI snitch, the conviction of a man of god. Imbuing all five Abels with the same charismatic essence, Nicholson shape-shifts amoothly, letting Danyele Thomas’s costumes do some of the work.

Abel #1, is a traveling song and dance man who makes a living in 1910 performing – and fully cognizant of the irony - as a Black man wearing black face with Captain Davenport’s Minstrel Troupe (earning the disapproval of the NAACP in the process). “Damn glad to meet ya!” Abel the minstrel says, and, yes, he probably is glad and is only too happy to tell us about how he has been earning decent bucks acting the fool for white and Black audiences alike. The discovery of a lynched body may be enough to knock his partner out of the game, but not Abel, who soldiers on, sleeping with a pistol under his pillow and hopping the train for his next gig. Lonely? Warry? Degraded. Absolutely. “Cause I ain’t got nothing but this here, this song and dance, this jig show, and the next one is some miles up these here tracks.”

Which propels Nicholson into 1939 and his second Abel. As the "Instrument of God," Abel Green the faith healer performs a series of “miracles” that elevate him to the level of small town saint. The fall from grace comes just as swiftly. Where Abel the minstrel was a witness to atrocities, Abel the faith healer weathers the blows, but he is a man who through various crises, doesn’t lose his conviction.

On it goes, Abel the snitch infiltrating the Black Panthers as an FBI informant, Abel the “Next Great Black Actor” coming to a reckoning over a close friend contracting AIDS and Abel the Saturn Bound Man, a disspirted financial scam artist now helping a homeless person build a rocket ship out of tin cans. Subtly building on what we have just seen, every persona is finely layered, alternating between edginess, bitterness and a sense of wonder. 

Does the soul of Abel Green ever get it right or at least right enough not to have to continue forward for another go-round? Probably not, at least as long as our nation struggles with giving justice and humanity to African Americans. You may find plays that tackle these subjects with more in your face fervor than FREIGHT, but they won’t have J. Alphonse Nicholson.

A final note. With the possible exception of the Robey Theatre Company, Los Angeles does not have a theater company that devotes its programing primarily to the Black experience. In recent years, Center Theatre Group, The Pasadena Playhouse and The Geffen Playhouse have upped their game in terms of diverse programming. Throughout its nearly 35 years of existence, the Fountain has presented so many important works that have advanced the conversation. From CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC to THE BALAD OF EMMETT TILL, from U.S. premieres of the plays of Athol Fugard to AN OCTOROON, which brought the theater out of the pandemic and many, many more, company leaders Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor Culver and Simon Levy have challenged and engaged us. Long may they continue to take us down the tracks, bumps and all.

FREIGHT plays through  December 16 at 5060 Fountain Avenue, L.A.

Photo of J. Alphonse Nicholson by Jonathan Benavente