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Theater Review: Freight

J. Alphonse Nicholson in Freight. Photo by Jonathan Benavente.

Freight is carried on a series of trains, and Freight is fraught. It glides and jostles and ultimately moves its cargo to a series of destinations and times.

Freight, by the appropriately named Howard L. Craft, is making its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre. The remarkable J. Alphonse Nicholson reprises his off-Broadway triumph, playing five characters named Abel Green in five distinct eras between 1910 and 2010.

As Abel Green, Nicholson must exhibit the full panoply of humanity, from a Black minstrel’s complicated feelings of making money by presenting himself as a caricature to a white audience, through to the guilt of a mortgage banker whose predatory behavior harmed many of his own people while he got rich. Black history, religion, politics, economics…all come together in a gem of a script laden with both humor and suffering.

J. Alphonse Nicholson in Freight. Photo by Jonathan Benavente.

A group of other characters join Abel Green through his tales: two men and a woman with, like him, consistent names but different roles. Locations whose names always include “Jefferson” are also a through line, jolting each time they appear. This approach keeps the stories connected through a sense of familiarity.

Hard-earned wisdom permeates Freight, such as this early-20th-century line: “All Negroes are actors by necessity, and those who know their lines live longer.” Nicholson is up for whatever the script throws at him, and even uses his top skills as a percussionist to punctuate and round out his multi-pronged persona.

J. Alphonse Nicholson in Freight. Photo by Jonathan Benavente.

Nicholson is supported by “Universal Flow” Sidney Edwards, a luminous dancer who appears during the transitions between eras to bring what’s needed and remove what’s done. Joseph Megel directs with respect and elan, building through the decades toward Freight’s emotional ending. By then, the five incarnations of Abel Green have culminated in a character of depth and empathy who has risen above pain and degradations with power and purpose.

In this insightful and intense ride, Nicholson’s brilliant performance captures all of the many details and nuances of Craft’s script. Scenic designer Joel Daavid and video designer Eamonn Farrell enhance the simple set with projections, mostly of trains’ interiors or the landscape outside of their windows. Perfectly curated music includes Bert Williams’ 1906 “Nobody” and the Temptations’ 1969 “Cloud 9.” Clever and sensitive costumes by Danyele Thomas complete the experience.

Freight runs through Dec. 16 on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 2:00pm (dark Nov. 24) at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. at Normandie. Tickets are $40-45 and can be purchased here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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