nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
May 24, 2009
In Pure Confidence, Simon Cato—a black horse jockey in the unspecified American South, circa 1861—lives a life of contradiction; enslaved to a (relatively) benign race promoter known as The Colonel, Cato is the star of the track and generates perpetual winning income, yet the crowds that cheer him are filled with whites who drop the word "nigger" with ease and dispassion. Planning to race until he can buy his freedom and passage into a life more befitting a man of his drive and talents, Cato's plans are subverted by a number of unexpected events and engagements: Cato chooses to spend his winnings to instead free his beloved Caroline, a house slave to The Colonel's wife, Mattie, just prior to the outbreak of Civil War that sweeps across the soon-to-be Confederate States Cato tours.
Playwright Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence comes to 59E59's Americas Off-Broadway Festival by way of Mixed Blood Theatre and original productions at Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. This is a highly polished production that moves briskly with ease and—well—confidence. Seldom sentimental, Pure Confidence is an inspiring evening of theatre that celebrates hope and humanity. In the face of disappointment, cruel fate, and woeful imbalances of justice, Brown's characters remain true to their ideals of family, charity, and moral certitude; what elevates Brown's play above feel-good historical fiction is an empathy for his many characters, no matter how deplorable the original sin and institution of slavery to modern sensibilities.
Though Simon Cato is ostensibly the play's lead and focal point, Pure Confidence is populated with fascinating characters superbly crafted by actors of wit and emotional verisimilitude. As The Colonel and Mattie, Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry offer something other than the "Good Nazi" approach to humanizing their slave-owning characters: The Colonel and Mattie are presented as having genuine affection and concern for Cato and Caroline. Indeed, when the four reunite in postwar Saratoga, New York, The Colonel and Mattie operate from a place of love and longing for the former slaves they had come to view as family. It is a compliment to Brown's fine writing and the performances of Mulkey and Landry that the characters never come off as maudlin or patronizing, but rather as wonderfully human incongruities.
Christina Clark's Caroline is a study in (seemingly incongruous) restraint and vulnerability. Her performance is arguably the heart of the show, offering a subtle, sympathetic character who spends much of her time watching and observing: Often, she is our cipher, and a lovely one at that. Clark also proves to have excellent comic timing, and successfully garners the bulk of the show's well-placed laughs. Visually, there is something inherently amusing and endearing about her pairing with Simon Cato: She towers over the jockey, and Clark uses this to her advantage.
As Simon Cato, Gavin Lawrence offers a stirring, versatile performance. When we first meet Cato, clad in jockey colors and basking in winning flashbulbs, he is a firebrand of cocksure braggadocio and impassioned certainty. Lawrence imbues this early incarnation of Cato with intelligence and a playful threat; when he challenges the racists who would prefer not to see their lost winnings in the hands of a black jockey, it's hard not to leap out of your seat and cheer Cato's name. Later, playing an older man forced to accept the passage of youth and the fading of his star, Lawrence deftly turns his early performance on its ear, with the passion and brilliance of young Simon Cato remanifested as bitterness and seething. In these later scenes, as the character dangles perfidiously close to an outlook bereft of the hope and optimism that made him so appealing, Lawrence is able to walk the narrow tightrope of pathos and possibility.
Director Marion McClinton has staged Pure Confidence with economy and inventiveness. Scenes in the first act, which cover a great deal of thematic and geographic territory, flow easily from one to another. The second act sustains a sense of unease and wrought tension until the cathartic, wonderfully ambiguous finale. Many sequences in Pure Confidence are thrilling and high-paced, requiring ingenuous solutions to the limitations of the theatrical form; of note, scenes depicting Cato in the saddle and in the heat of a race employ a Suzuki-like style of movement to great effect. Perhaps the most exciting sequence in the show—an imagined race conceived by Cato between horses named Freedom and Slavery—takes place on an almost bare stage, with Cato mounted atop a riding barrel; the scene works because of McClinton's faith in his actors, and their masterful use of Brown's rich text.
Pure Confidence is thrilling theatre, and a welcome addition to 59E59's festival season. Brown, McClinton, and company deserve rousing applause and full houses for their stirring work.