Friday, June 5, 2009

Pure Confidence

  It’s a gift to find a gem of a play like Pure Confidence, which is enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters through July 3. The story and characters are involving, brought to life by strong acting and Marion McClinton’s sensitive direction.

Playwright Carlyle Brown’s story of a slave and his longing to be free is set against a backdrop of horse racing and high stakes betting in the South of 1861 and Saratoga, NY, in 1877. Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence) will be a memorable character for me. A champion jockey who is one of the most successful athletes of his day, Simon bristles at being a slave. Knowing his skill at winning makes him a valuable commodity for the owners whose horses he is hired out to race, he displays a cockiness and arrogance no other slave could get away with.

“I’m the one with the whip,” he says smugly.

As portrayed by Lawrence, Simon is winning in every way. So is Caroline (Christianna Clark), a slave who becomes Simon’s wife after he buys her freedom. I cared about these two people and wanted them to be happy.

The Pure Confidence of the title is the prize thoroughbred owned by Colonel Wiley Johnson (Chris Mulkey) that Simon races so successfully. Simon himself is pure confidence, until his world comes crashing down unexpectedly in a plot twist I won’t reveal.

The first act is full of humor as Simon pushes his limits with the wealthy white horse owners. The second act, set in Saratoga 16 years later, is more serious and contains the most compelling encounter of the play when Caroline meets up with her former mistress, Mattie Johnson (Karen Landry), the Colonel’s wife. Miss Mattie is glad to see Caroline and talks to her as if the two had been friends. But Caroline lashes out, mentioning a time she had traveled with her mistress and seen slave family being torn apart at auctions.

“Nothing you ever say to me help to prepare me for that,” she says angrily. “’Cause you see Miss Mattie, I start thinking about when did that happen to me? When was I sold from my family, my mother, my father, my brother, my sisters? And God help me, Miss Mattie, but I don’t remember. You would think you would remember something like that, but I didn’t. It was just an empty feeling like staring at a star-less, moon-less sky. And this feeling I get gets to be so full of hatefulness, and I didn’t know how to put a name after it, Miss Mattie, but to name after you.”

Miss Mattie is genuinely sorry: “I don’t know what to tell you, Caroline. I shouldn’t be surprised about the way you feel. I should of known it. We can all feel hateful about our lives. And about how things might have been and all the things we could have done. . . You don’t ask whether it’s right or wrong, it’s the world and you try to live in it. But deep down you know it’s wrong, and there’s a little coward inside you, a little devil that’s always whispering, ‘What can I do? I can’t change the world.’ And so you don’t do anything and day by day it makes you hateful. . . And now it looks like I’ve gone on and passed that hatefulness on to you. I am truly sorry, Caroline.”

I was touched by the grace of Caroline’s response: “You don’t have to be sorry, Miss Mattie. I know about them things you talking about. You know I do. I live in your house and I seen it. I just wanted to hear you say it, that’s all.”

It’s a powerful scene that riveted the audience. It made Caroline as real as any of us sitting there watching.

Brown’s play also makes real a piece of African-American history that I knew nothing about, and that is in sharp contrast with the present day.

“African-American jockeys’ dominance in the world of racing is a history nearly forgotten today,” writes Lisa K. Winkler in “Their participation dates back to colonial times, when the British brought their love of horse racing to the New World. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country’s most valuable horseflesh. From such responsibility, slaves developed the abilities needed to calm and connect with thoroughbreds, skills demanded of successful jockeys.”

She provides interesting statistics. Of the 20 riders in this year’s Kentucky Derby, none was African-American. “Yet in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black.” They dominated the track in the late 1800s, but by 1921 had disappeared, not to return again until 2000. Racism and intense competition, sometimes violent, as race tracks closed because of economic recessions helped bring about the decline of black jockeys.

“For blacks, racing provided a false sense of freedom,” Winkler writes. “They were allowed to travel the racing circuit, and some even managed their owners’ racing operation. They competed along side whites. When black riders were cheered to the finish line, the only colors that mattered were the colors of their silk jackets, representing their stables. Horse racing was entertaining for white owners and slaves alike and one of the few ways for slaves to achieve status.”

Pure Confidence beautifully resurrects that time. Joseph Stanley’s wonderful set, which switches nicely from southern stable to northern hotel, Christine A. Richardson’s costumes and Michael Wangen’s lighting serve the effort well. The show, a Mixed Blood Theatre production, is part of the Americas Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters.

I strongly urge you to see this production. Tickets are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at  For more information 

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