I went into the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s production of Pure Confidence by Carlyle Brown very nearly blind. Didn’t know the company, so felt eager to see something by them. Knew next-to-nothing of the subject matter, save it had something to do with race relations—and evidently (from the poster) the Civil War as well as horse-racing. But I like for plays and their performers speak for themselves.
Turned out to be a lot of good things this production had to say.
Horse-racing and slave jockeys in the antebellum South. A subject about which I knew nothing. What I saw in the play gave me a glimpse seriously at odds with what I thought I knew in general—mostly about how slaves might buy their freedom in what became of the Confederacy. Frankly in most states it nearly (sometimes literally) took an act of the state legislature to allow any slave to go free, no matter what. Was Kentucky really that different? How delightful if so!
The play centers around Simon Cato (Armond Edward Dorsey), a hugely successful slave jockey, and Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salvers) who owned not Simon but the horse Pure Confidence upon which Simon won so many great races, rising to what we would call superstardom. The two enjoy each other’s company, are friends even. Finally Simon makes the Colonel a proposal—that he purchase Simon and then Simon will buy himself from his share in the winnings (the Colonel regularly shared such winnings, in the play a not uncommon practice to encourage jockeys). Despite genuine fondness for him, the Colonel proves reluctant. So the cunning jockey hatches a plan, one with the help of Mattie (Deborah Puette), the Colonel’s wife.
Along the way, Simon meets Caroline (Tamarra Graham), Mattie’s personal maid, and plots to buy her as well—with her consent, marriage in mind.
Now, you might think the shenanigans of Simon to get himself free would emerge as the heart of the play’s story. In fact it proves a subplot, one that all-but-vanishes before the end of the first act—and, not coincidentally, the arrival of the Civil War. A gap of nearly two decades takes place before act two, when these four find themselves re-united under an odd set of circumstances. Some bitterness, some fondness, some hope and some humiliation lies in store for them all. We watch all this, having gotten to like and care for them. One of the highest praises I can offer to playwright, cast and director Marya Mazor must be that all four come across as extremely human, each growing with time as well as needing some more growing at play’s end, each having gained and lost a lot. Their cross purposes and sometimes genuinely bad behavior comes across as human, understandable, forgiveable. All good! More than good!
And yet I left feeling the drama pulled its punch several times. Perhaps the playwright deliberately chose to do that. For all I know they felt that essential to what they were aiming for. Without doubt the actual story of these four characters works, because we engage with them and end wishing them the best. Yet the real and present dangers which would have surrounded them never really come on stage. Simon and Caroline enjoy extremely exalted status as slaves in the slave-holding South, with the reality of other slaves simply never impinging on the lives of anyone in the play—only mentioned as something unpleasant a couple of times. In fact the whole outside world never really seems to exist much. Not only the viciousness of slavery for most, but the rampant fear and rage boiling over as events in 1860-61 turned into a long, extremely bloody war. Likewise the second act didn’t really offer much of genuine context, which robbed all those scenes of some genuine poignancy (and kudos for everyone in achieving so much as they did).
But I kept wondering where was the meat amid this very nice dramatic meal of fruits, vegetables and some very good sweets? Where was the blood, at least metaphorically? If we are to see the real friendships of these four compelling and interesting characters as vivid and special, where is the context to show how special? How very extraordinary? Frankly, without that the play reminds me of the excuses I heard growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s and 70s, about how much slaves were cared for by their Masters, about how terrible freedom proved for the slaves, about how much more racist and uncivilized the Union was compared to the Confederacy. That felt jarring.
Yet—again, because it bears repeating—the play’s story engaged me. The characters touched my heart, with affection if not love or passion. I cared about events taking place before me, and quite simply the actors did a magnificent job (especially Graham, who frankly had the least to work with among the leads) with such uniform quality I cannot but praise director Mayzor.
I must also note when I finally got around to reading the program, something became clear as clearest air—this play does not in any way represent an actual telling of real history, despite the fact Simon Cato was a real man and did indeed rise to the top of his profession. Which is fine. Congrats on making me believe for a time it did!
PureConfidence plays 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 3pm on Sundays until April 30, 2017 at the Sacred Fools ‘Black Box’ Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038.