Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble at Sacred Fools Theater
Through May 14
African-Americans figured prominently in American horseracing in the mid 19th century. Many trainers were slaves who worked on farms in the South, taking care of the horses for their owners. Some slaves also became jockeys, earning money (that they were able to keep for themselves) by auctioning off their riding skills to the highest bidder. In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen of the fifteen jockeys, including the winner, were African-American.
Written by Carlyle Brown, Pure Confidence is a drama about a champion jockey who gains fame while still a slave, then negotiates to buy his freedom from the man who oversees him. The basic premise is sound, but the plot and characters are oversimplified, as if geared to teach history to younger audiences. In director Marya Mazor’s staging, the miscasting of the principle role and the subsequent portrayal by the performer in question further detracts from the positive elements of the production.
Act 1 takes place just prior to the Civil War. African-American jockey and slave Simon Cato (Armond Edward Dorsey, rather too sturdily built for a jockey) “belongs” to the estate of two minor children, but his principal relationship is with another landowner, Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salyers), a horse breeder whom he works for on a regular basis. Given his status as “property,” Simon is an uncharacteristically self-assured — some might say cocky — individual. In the opening scene, he openly insults one of Johnson’s competitors, George DeWitt (Eamon Hunt), a noxious racist who lacks the gentlemanly breeding of the Colonel — who in contrast to DeWitt treats Simon with affectionate, if condescending, deference.
Simon’s overriding aim is to become a free man, and he not only accomplishes that in Act 1 but also acquires a wife, Caroline (Tamarra Graham), the favored servant of the Colonel’s wife, Mattie (Deborah Puette) — as well as his own horse which he predicts will makes him lots of money. Although the Colonel initially objects to freeing Simon (he must first purchase him himself, which he does) the inordinately wise and sensitive Mattie convinces her husband this is the right thing to do. She parts with Caroline with sage reluctance, stipulating that Simon must marry her and treat her well.
Unfortunately for Simon, an accident precipitated by a couple of white jockeys in cahoots puts an end to his riding career. Now legally free, but unable to earn as before, he and Caroline must struggle to survive in a post-Civil War North. Slavery may be dead, but malignant racism flourishes as trenchantly and ubiquitously as ever before.
Back in high school in American history class, I was taught that some slaves lived better than black freemen in the North. The play reiterates that by contrasting Simon and Caroline’s lives before the war (Act 1) and after (Act 2). Although the final message at catharsis is that it’s better to be able to make a choice than not, along the way the deck sure seems stacked in favor of choosing life in the homey South; the Colonel and Mattie are ethical, folksy, and genteel, whereas a Northern journalist (Dylan John Seaton) trying to write about their relationship to their former slave is portrayed as meddlesome and obnoxious, while a hotel manager (Hunt) in Sarasota, New York where Simon is later employed, is as mean and nasty a bigot as they come.
The two-dimensionality of the story is somewhat relieved by Salyers’ accomplished rendering of the likable Colonel. Puette does her best with a caricature, as written, of a saintly Southern matron. Seaton is smart and salty as the lean and hungry investigative reporter, and highly watchable. Graham’s understated Caroline isn’t arresting, but she serves the story.
But in a play as much concerned with what makes a man as anything else — Simon poses that question to the Colonel early on — Dorsey is off the mark. His Simon is far too petulant for a hero, even a flawed and arrogant one — he needs more dignity, even if it’s born of hubris. Plus, the performance is doggedly one-note. It’s a problem with the direction as much as a misinterpretation by the performer.
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble at Sacred Fools Theater, 1076 Lillian Way, Hlywd; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 14; www.lower-depth.com/on-stage or (323) 960-7745. Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.