Piedmont Performance Factory / StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance @ UNC’s Swain Hall
101 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill
919-542-5406 Through Jan. 24VENUS IN FUR

Raleigh Little Theatre / Actors Comedy Lab @ Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St., Raleigh
919-821-4579 Through Feb. 1

Despite Scott Timberg’s diagnosis in Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, ours is not the only age in which entire classes of creative artists seem threatened by extinction. Consider Abel Greenor at least the first of the five characters so named in Howard L. Craft‘s historical play FREIGHT: THE FIVE INCARNATIONS OF ABEL GREEN, whose notable world premiere closes with an added Saturday night performance this weekend.

Why is a professional theatrical artist like Green riding a boxcar to his next venue? In Craft’s script, the answers are cultural, economic and personal, as a gifted African-American comedian and singer pursues burnt-cork minstrelsy in the early 1900s.

The money’s not so good any more because the genre is in decline, derided as a betrayal by cultural leaders and the recently formed NAACP. Even more ominously, Green’s longtime partner has quit, fearing that he’ll never feel clean again after doing blackface.

After witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, Green must confront the reality of performing to “a sea of faces that looked just like those watching that man burn and hang.” Yet Green soldiers on down a path that can only dead-end.

Through these five well-crafted monologues of African-American lives in the 20th century, betrayals and dead ends are featured as centrally as travel by rail, in a work whose scope, substance and lyricism recall that of August Wilson.

Twenty years later, the second Abel Green, a credulous but otherwise good-hearted man, unwittingly dupes thousands as a faith healer in “The Instrument of God.” In “The Snitch,” the third Green winds up being used by the FBI as an informant on the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

After the fourth Green, a Hollywood actor, tires of being cast as pimps, thugs and drug kingpinsin what Craft seems to posit as the 1980s answer to blackfacehe turns his back on a friend in “The Last Great Black Actor.” A different but no less devastating betrayal figures into the final tale, “The Saturn-Bound Man.”

Much of the suspense in these five brief acts involves howor ifthe characters surpass the roadblocks they’ve either encountered or constructed for themselves. In this sense, the title Freight alludes not only to the trains on which we find each character, but also to the considerable baggage of the legacy of a century or more of racial inequality.

In choosing a single name for five disparate characters, Craft invokes an African-American everyman who faces myriad changes and challenges over the last century. He also neatly flips a conventional but by now jaded wisdom, which holds that the names may change but the stories never do. In this world, when the names don’t change, either, what is visited upon one is ultimately visited upon all.

Few actors in the region possess the range this challenging solo work requires. J. Alphonse Nicholson’s artistic growth continues with his intensely vivid portrayals of the five who are one. Director Joseph Megel has achieved exceptional results in previous outings with this actor and playwright. Here, he unsurprisingly pulls the best out of both, in a show that makes us wonder what the next stop is on our culture’s mystery train.

Betrayal also looms large in VENUS IN FUR, David Ives’ dark but toothsome off-stage comedy about theatricals behaving poorly. Those whose sexual tastes run in a particular direction may already recognize that the title is taken from the seminal 1870 novella by Austrian journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose literary output and personal predilections ultimately inspired the term “masochism.”

In Ives’ 2010 play, a scattered but gifted actor named Vanda (Diana Cameron McQueen) arrives far too late to audition for a new modern-day update of the work. Still, the playwright, Thomas (Tony Lea), lets her do a three-page read.

As it happens, Vanda is much more than she first appears, and as Ives’ work unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that she has given both play and playwright a lot more scrutiny than a quick skim on an uptown train.

As a result, she has come to this audition quite prepared. Her bag contains costumes that fit her and him. There are other things in the bag as wellincluding a few weapons.

Under Rod Rich’s direction, McQueen ably prosecutes Vanda’s increasingly extreme forms of literary and gender criticism. The actor repeatedly turns on a dime between the aloof, seductive character in the play-within-the-play and the actress trying out for a show. The one false note? Her bone-dry raincoat coming in from the opening downpour.

But I hate to observe that McQueen is unequally yoked in this two-character play. Despite his merits as a director in his own right, Lea’s emotional bandwidth is obviously narrower and less convincing. Two superior performances would have made this intriguing feminist script unbeatable. The show we saw left us amused, but not entirely fulfilled.

Byron Woods is the INDY‘s theater columnist. Find him on Twitter @ByronWoods.