TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED, BLACK, AND FULL OF ONESELF IN 1861
by Cindy Pierre
June 12, 2009
now playing at 59E59
through July 3
Historian Donald Bogle has spent years examining stereotypical film and TV roles
for African-American actors, beginning with his first book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies
and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films. But Pure Confidence's Simon Cato may just be the kind of atypical
character that Bogle hasn't had under his signature spectacles yet, though he'd need to consider other mediums to do so. For in theater, Carlyle Brown's wonderfully exciting play revolves around an insolent, intelligent, and
larger-than-life slave turned successful horse jockey who doesn't carry himself like he's property. Yet, even though he's thrilling and pride-filling, you're just as likely to add confusing to that pot of
emotions when pondering his existence.
Set in the south in the mid to late 19th century, Pure Confidence chronicles the rise and fall of a
slave's dreams to be free. Cato, played magnificently by Gavin Lawrence, is introduced under
strobe lights that work in tandem with applause, so it's no wonder that he has a smart mouth and a swollen head. He not only rides a horse with the same title as the play, but he's overflowing with the character
trait. The only problem is that it's 1861, and back then, the consequences for a slave that
refused to be broken were dire. But before you outright reject the notion of a sassy slave,
Brown does give you one good reason to accept it: Simon is a guaranteed moneymaker on the racetrack, and everyone wants
him. He's so good that the Colonel Wiley Johnson, the fast-talking stable owner played by
Chris Mulkey, rents him regularly from his real owner, and Dewitt, a local competitor played powerlessly by Mark Sieve (through June
7th), suffers his insults while trying to hire him.
The fact that few of the white characters in Pure Confidence behave like real “massas” suggests that this play is more
of a dramedy than a drama. And in that case, a dramedy would pardon Simon's
behavior. Sure, they throw around lines like “nigger, I ought to beat you to within an inch
of your life”, but you won't buy it. There's simply too much good humor and greed going
around. The only relationship that approximates what one would expect from a “massa-slave”
situation is the one between Colonel's wife Mattie – played by Karen Landry with a
marvelous mischief under a lady-like veneer – and her “girl” Caroline, played with a tender strength by Christiana Clark.
The lack of the “massa-slave” dynamic also mutes the impact of the good and bad experiences sustained by the
characters. Simon keeps talking about and working towards buying his freedom, but as Mattie
says to the Colonel when he refuses to help him with his free papers, “Hell, that nigger's already free. He's more free than you'll ever be, anyhow.” Because Simon's under no threat of being beaten or hobbled,
when he suffers hardships, they're not as hard as they could be, and his triumphs aren't as glorious as they could be,
It's a good thing that Joseph Stanley's set and Christine A. Richardson's costumes are glorious enough. With a stable that's concurrently simple and grandiose in the first act, Stanley manages to make pillars
of wood seem like skyscrapers towards that “pie in the sky.” His rich and ornate set for a hotel in Act Two is a beautiful sight, but
Mattie's wardrobe gives it a run for its money. The period costumes are simply amazing, and
you'll never get bored, because Mattie changes as often as an award show host.
Other elements that keep you invested are the great exchanges between Simon and Caroline and Marion McClinton's enchanting
direction. Lawrence and Clark feed off of each other nicely, each playing the victim and
supporter role with aplomb, while McClinton keeps the spirit and action of horse racing alive with simulated races run only on
manpower. One of several scenes where McClinton's magic is particularly strong is a montage
of action that propels the story fast-forward right before the end of the first act and before the Civil War. In a nice moment of contrast, Mattie, Colonel and Caroline speed-narrate while Simon moves like a
jockey in slow-motion. It's a simple but effective strategy.
In fact, Pure Confidence is a pleasing combination of simple and complex that works on many
levels. The desire for freedom is simple enough, but the complications that arise from
trying to attain it are anything but. Here, Brown offers a new perspective on freedom, one
that invites you to consider a liberty that exists in self-worth and strong spirit, even if you're laugh or smile through
it. And because the play encourages you to find those traits within yourself, Pure
Confidence is a well-placed bet with great odds.
cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Carol Rosegg