This was a disappointing play, and that, in itself is a disappointment. Carlyle Brown has chosen to tackle history with a full body takedown. This is the story of a jockey, Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence) who was also a slave. There are so few (any?) black jockeys now, and white people have done such a good job of robbing anyone, who isnï¿½t white and male, of an honest history, that this idea of a black jockey comes as a surprise. This is precisely what the author understands, and his knowledge of history is a tremendous asset.
Pure Confidence however, comes across more as a lecture or a high school level production. People are not interacting, statistics are. This is immediately evident in the first scene when Simon repeatedly insults a white breeder who has come to speak to Colonel Wiley Johnson (Chris Mulkey) for whom Simon works. (Jockeys were let out to work for different Breeders.) The year is 1861, but Simon is behaving as if it is 2009. He is sarcastic and insolent. Call me crazy, but I think this would also have made him dead by scene two.
The second act is set in 1877 in Saratoga. The scene takes place in a Saratoga Hotel where Simon is now a bell boy as his racing days came to a tragic end. He is still married to Caroline (Christiana Clark) who was the slave of Mattie Johnson, the colonelï¿½s wife. The Colonel has tracked Simon down with the aide of a newspaper reporter to ask him to return to work as a trainer. This also requires that Mattie and Caroline reunite in what proved to be the most disarming and genuine scene of the entire play. Two women talked of love and betrayal and you could have heard a pin drop.
As directed by Marion McClinton, the production is tight, but lacking in substance. There is no threat, no gravity in the air. The text would seem to call for it, but the actors are not all on the same page. It is Lawrenceï¿½s performance in particular that undermines what the author is trying to do as he swaggers through one scene after another, trampling on time and circumstance. There is little that the other actors can do to balance this choice because Simon is the center of the story. It makes me wonder where Mr. McClinton was during the character development part of rehearsal. The only actor who seems up to the text is Karen Landry (Mattie). She has a steadiness and grace that one wishes were contagious. Christiana Clark also has a scene where she meets Simon for the first time, and she shines mightily.
I understand what Mr. Brown was trying to do, and perhaps another production and the aide of a dramaturge will do his ideas justice.
"Brownï¿½s play is curiously tame. Just when you expect him to reach for a scalpel, he lobs cotton balls."
New York Times
"this unheralded work deserves your attention."
"The title Pure Confidence refers to a beloved, pedigreed horse. This compelling play also has a pedigree that proclaims it as a piece of important theatre."
"Brown's play is nothing if not ultimately unsettling."