By Darlene Donloe
It’s been a decade since J. Alphonse Nicholson took on the dramatic, lead role in Howard Craft’s play, “Freight — The Five Incarnations of Abel Green,” directed by Joseph Megel and set to open at the Fountain Theater Nov. 12.
It’s an intriguing role for Nicholson, a married father of two, who portrays five versions of an African-American everyman who travels through time in different incarnations, including a 19th century minstrel, a faith healer, an FBI informant, a struggling actor and an out-of-work mortgage broker.
As the story goes, in each life, Abel is guided, distracted, helped or hindered by a handful of characters with whom his destiny is forever intertwined.
The audience meets each new iteration of Abel Green on a train, which changes in appearance in accordance with each time period and serves as a link between dimensions.
Nicholson, a Greensboro, North Carolina native who studied theater at North Carolina Central University, lived briefly in New York before moving west to Los Angeles.
Nicholson’s credits include Broadway’s Tony award-winning “A Soldier’s Play.” He appeared in Netflix’s “They Cloned Tyrone” and co-stars in “P-Valley” on Starz where he received two NAACP Image Award nominations for the role.
In addition to “A Soldier’s Play,” his theater credits include Signature Theatre’s twice-extended off-Broadway premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue,” directed by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and “Days of Rage” at 2nd Stage.
He also can soon be seen in “The Sterling Affairs” (FX), “Black Spartans” (Buffalo 8 Productions) and “Albany Road.”
I recently spoke to Nicholson about his career and the reprising of his role in “Freight — The Five Incarnations of Abel Green.”
DD: Tell me about the show, “Freight,” and what about it attracted you.
JAN: It was 10 years ago when I was working with Howard. I was working with Joseph Megel (director) and Howard Craft. The show was inspired by the painting “Slow Down Freight Train” by Rose Piper. The play literally started out as a 10-minute monologue for North Carolina’s “Activated Art at the Ackland” series. That 10-minute scene was later expanded in collaboration with Megel and Nicholson to create the current, full-length production.
I went to New York. I used the piece to audition. I thought maybe we could expand it. We made it five incarnations spanning the 1910s to 2000s. It’s about making his wrongs right. That’s what interested me. It was a beautiful story. I know the horror of being a Black man in America. It was something I knew I could use to push my career forward. Now it’s 90 minutes. This show is a challenge I was up to.
DD: Who are the Abel Green characters?
JAN: There is a minstrel, a minister/healer. There is an everyday man, an FBI informant, an actor and a mortgage broker who becomes homeless.
DD: How long have you been living with Abel? How has he evolved?
JAN: Well, it’s been 10 years, which means I’m 10 years older. I’m the age of Abel the way Howard wrote him. My experience as an actor has grown. I’ve applied it to the show. We’re all more experienced. The show has a new feel to it. The iteration has grown a lot.
DD: When did you become an actor?
JAN: I started at 18. A long time ago I was in a show called “Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders.” Ironically, I was doing the show for the same director who is now directing “Freight.”
DD: Were you any good?
JAN: I played the lead. I did OK.
DD: Why did you become an actor? Were you watching something on television, or a film, or a play at a theater?
JAN: I actually thought I was going to be a music teacher. I’m a drummer. I was always somewhat of an entertainer.
My first year in college was when it happened. It was my first time on a proscenium stage. A lovely professor saw me and thought I’d do well on stage. I did my first play in college. The show was called “Home,” by Samm-Art Williams. The professor saw me in that show. I really enjoyed it. That’s when I knew I wanted to do it.
DD: What did you get out of it?
JAN: It was a way to express yourself emotionally. Then I found out I could make a living. It could lead to opportunities in TV and film. It’s nice to grow in this industry. It helps me provide for my family.
DD: What does acting do for you? What happens when you’re on stage? Are you fully present?
JAN: There is kind of a dual thing that happens. You’re immersed in the character and you’re aware of being an actor. You live within being an actor. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a rush. I’m addicted to it. It’s an out-of-body experience. It’s a concentration that makes you feel accomplished.
DD: How do you prepare to go on stage, and how do you prepare to come down from such an intense role?
JAN: I rehearse for five hours a day. I do a lot of the work at home in the morning when I get up. I get some coffee, meditate, work out, rehearse and do a note session. We make sure the show is in our body every day. I also do a lot of stretching and warming up. When I’m coming down, we do a note section and go home.
DD: Writer Howard Craft says “Freight operates on the premise that a person’s spirit, or soul, comes to the world because there is something the soul needs to learn. If the soul does not learn it, then it comes back to the world again and again until it’s successful. The soul can exist concurrently in different time periods, in multiple dimensions of the same universe.”
Do you agree with that?
JAN: I do. We all have had a past life. Not sure what I was. I do think we all live within different realms. It’s the phases you go through in the time that you’re here. We all get second chances. This story touches on all levels.
DD: You do theater, TV and film. What does each one do for you that the others don’t?
JAN: You can make a good living doing TV and film. They are all fulfilling as an artist. You have to put your all into each one. In theater, there are no cuts, no stops. The challenge is very different from film. No one is doing theater at three in the morning. They all have unique challenges. They all do something special for me.
The creative team for “Freight” at the Fountain includes scenic designer Joel Daavid; lighting designer Alison Brummer, sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett; video designer Eamonn Farrell; costume designer Danyele Thomas; and props designer Rebecca Carr. The production stage manager is Kaitlyn R. Cramer.
“Freight – The Five Incarnations of Abel Green,”opens at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, at 7 p.m. Nov. 12, with performances thereafter on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 16 (dark Nov. 13 and Nov. 24). Three preview performances take place Nov. 9-11, each at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $25–$45; Pay–What–You–Want seating is available every Monday night in addition to regular seating (subject to availability); all previews are Pay-What-You-Want.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.