Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green

Photo by Dennis Cahlo

Photo by Dennis Cahlo

Katy Rubin, Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC; Moon Lowery, actor and facilitator; and Maaji Newbold, actor, responded to Freight through conversation, sitting on a bench outside HERE, on Sixth Avenue. Moon and Maaji are members of TONYC’s Concrete Justice troupe, made up of actors with experience of homelessness in NYC, since 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Freight, a one-man show, tells the story of an African-American male who exists in 5 different incarnations at different points in American history: as minstrel, cult leader, FBI informant, struggling actor, and out-of work mortgage broker. Written by Howard L. Craft and performed by J. Alphonse Nicholson, Freight runs through August 9 at HERE Arts Center.

Maaji Newbold: When I saw the stars projected onto the stage, I knew we were going somewhere, on a journey. It was a page in history. Like watching a documentary except it was live; I really felt like I was back there.

Moon Lowery: And throughout the show, we were on the train with him, always on a train. I also thought the train was symbolic of a journey and the different stops along the way. I would say it’s about the evolution of black people in America.

MN: And I would say it’s about learning from mistakes. There were so many mistakes I saw there and I don’t have to go through them. If I was to tell somebody about this play, I would say it’s a journey of someone trying to find himself. Everybody wants to be comfortable, everybody wants to be successful, everybody wants to be popular, but what is the cost of it all?

Katy Rubin: The character, Abel Greene, kept getting sucked in by illusions. First, as a minstrel: he wore black face in order to make money, and then had to smile for all these white people who lynch people in the trees while he’s entertaining them.  In his next incarnation, he’s a miracle worker and he thinks he’s an instrument of God, but he’s being manipulated for someone else’s profit.

ML: He makes these mistakes, and he makes up for it all each time, or he tries to. In that way, it took it from just being a story about black people to really a story about everybody and how we make mistakes. Life is not simple; you think it is, and then it isn’t.

MN: Of the 5 “incarnations,” the one I can relate to the most is the last one, when he became a can-and-bottle picker. I know those people are aliens, and he confirmed it. They are aliens saving this planet, pretending to be homeless people. How else could you be in the sun smelling like that if you’re not an alien from another planet? Just like he was, aiming to get to Saturn.

KR: Saving the planet, so true. That brings me to a question: who are you and why is this play relevant to you? Why should you and I be the ones talking about it?

MN: My name is Maaji, and I am those characters, I was born an actor. If I was hungry, I had to act and dance to make somebody smile so they could buy me something to eat. I was born like that. I saw myself in so many moments in the show, but the last one really made me think. Right now I’m 45; what happens to me now? Do I want to end up like the guy getting paid and tricking everybody, taking poor peoples’ money? Or do I wanna be like that guy who says “I’m happy with my little buckets, I can play my drums, at least I don’t owe nobody nothing.”

ML: What he just did there is all I try to do. That’s all I want to do. And that’s why I joined Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, that’s why I’m still here: I want people to understand each other. All you gotta do is understand instead of being blind and going off of presumptions. He went from a black perspective, but that’s his perspective – the main point of the story is the understanding.

KR: The character said in the beginning: “All Negroes are actors by necessity.” In Theatre of the Oppressed we say “all people are actors by necessity,” because we must be actors in our own lives in order to take action. It’s not as if he made up these five people whom we’ve never seen before; we know who those five people are. They’re real historical people, and they’re real contemporary people.

ML: They’re all around us. For instance, with black people in this country, a lot of us have not forgiven those white people who got us in this position in the first place. And he mentioned forgiveness in the play – that’s for us; you gotta be able to move on because you have to understand even the person who did something so bad to you. You know?

MN: He said you gotta learn to forgive yourself so you could see the opportunities. If you’re gonna be bitter, you’re gonna blind yourself.

KR: That’s real.

MN: I’m learning how to forgive myself.

ML: Yeah, me too.

KR: Let’s talk more about some moments or images that struck us: this play was really strong in its imagery and poetry.

MN: I’ve never heard of the expression “burnt pork,” when he was referring to seeing a lynched man hanging in the tree, in the first incarnation – “and you could smell the body before you see the body, and it was a sweet smell of burnt pork swingin’ in the wind” (paraphrased). These types of words, when I see the wind, I’m gonna remember that bodies can swing through that too.

ML: For me it was the Black Panthers. That’s my favorite black man image right there – the style, how they was dressin’, they combined style with intellect and a purpose that was noble. You can’t just be noble and have a purpose in this life; you gotta have style with it too, baby! Because it shows your creativity. He put himself on the line and showed himself as an informant, as a snitch. Doing that, especially in the Black Panthers, and in the black community period, is the worst. It’s like what happens in the next scene, when the gay friend isn’t accepted by the black community.

MN: I always read about the Black Panthers, and I’m like, Who would snitch? Who would work like that?  You’re getting a better understanding in this piece. Abel called himself Judas, but as he said in the play, if you think he did it for three slivers of gold, you’re wrong; Judas wasn’t doing it only for the money. It’s more complicated than that.

KR: This was something the play brought up a few times, the idea of Judas, the betrayer. In the first scene, Abel was called a Judas by the newspapers because he was poking fun of black people, performing as a minstrel, although he was himself black; then he betrayed the Panthers, manipulated by the FBI agents into informing; then again as the real estate mortgage shark, he was betraying his own friends and neighbors. He kept calling himself Judas, which was strong to me. He was stuck in these positions by forces of racism, but his actions were causing him pain. He wouldn’t let himself off the hook.

The only time I was jolted from the play was in the last scene. I felt that each story, or incarnation, was very real to the ground. And then in the present decade things get crazy, around the time of the crash of 2008: the character experiences a shootout in retaliation for his manipulation of mortgages…

ML: And then he gets beat up by a bunch of homeless people.

KR: He’s possibly hallucinating about the homeless woman who’s crushing cans in an attempt to get to Saturn. That last story took me out of the world he’d created, for a moment: the sense of bitter reality was weakened. Particularly because we work with homeless actors at TONYC a lot, and I know that their stories are just as bitterly real as the stories he’d told in all four previous incarnations.

ML: True, that story was way out there. But I liked his movements, he never really stopped moving. He was like a magician with the soda can. Or he would change scenes, he would be making movements and dancing, kind of, and I don’t know exactly what that was all about – but it worked.

MN: Yeah, I loved the transitions. And he was connecting: I thought he was talking to me at one point.

ML: He did something that reminded me of what Olympia Dukakis was giving us advice about in the workshop she taught us last year: talk to the audience, but let it settle on them. Don’t talk AT them, talk TO them. And wait to see their response. He did that. I was noticing that.

MN: He took his time with it.

ML: He really brought the stories to life – and it was a one man show!
MN: He inspired me. With a couple of chairs, and a couple of lights, and a couple of sounds, you can express yourself! That’s what art is. We’re artists, and what is it that we want to express? Put the message out on stage, stay focused. You don’t need a whole lot… just do it.

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