Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
 

 

TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED, BLACK, AND FULL OF ONESELF IN 1861

 

picture - Pure ConfidenceTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published June 12, 2009

 

Pure Confidence

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.

 

picture - Pure ConfidenceThe 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, either. 

 

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. 

 

picture - Pure ConfidenceOther 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

 

 
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