June 20, 2009

Muddy History in "Pure Confidence"

The Americas Off Broadway festival playing through July 3 at the 59E59 Theaters bills itself as a survey of “the American experience—past, present and future—through five critically-acclaimed productions from theaters across the Country.” As you might expect, the chance to see shows that had originated in places other than the familiar Broadway farm teams in Chicago (Steppenwolf, the Goodman), Seattle (Intiman, the Seattle Rep) and San Diego (the Old Globe, LaJolla Playhouse) appealed to me. And both my husband K and I were particularly intrigued when we read about Pure Confidence, a production from the Minneapolis-based Mixed Blood Theatre. So we bought tickets.

Playwright Carlyle Brown centers his narrative around the little-remembered time when black jockeys, most of them slaves, dominated horse racing in the years before the Civil War (click here to read an informative interview with Brown). Pure Confidence tells the story of a fictional jockey named Simon Cato, played with great ebullience by Gavin Lawrence. Acknowledged as the best rider in the nation, Cato lives a privileged life and Colonel Johnson, the white man who owns the horses Cato rides, treats him with respect and even affection. But, like the horses, Cato is a piece of property. He yearns for his freedom but the colonel considers him far too valuable a commodity to release.

Their dilemma holds great potential for drama and for a more nuanced look at the peculiar institution of slavery that would allow a black man to be a super star at a time when all blacks were considered “niggers” (the N-word is used liberally in the play). Unfortunately, the promise wasn’t fulfilled for me.

In an apparent effort to make the show palatable to modern audiences, both black and white, Brown has given his characters anachronistic attitudes. It’s unlikely that any slave would have dared to be as arrogant as Cato is in this play (“I'm the one with a whip,” the character boasts). And if white slave owners had been as empathetic as the colonel and his wife, then there wouldn’t have been a need for a Civil War.

This isn’t to say that all slaves were Uncle Tom and all masters Simon Legree. I’m endlessly fascinated by the complexities of the relationships that existed between blacks and whites during slavery as explored in works like Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family”, which traces the history of the author’s slave-owning ancestors and the black men and women who worked for them. Or in Annette Gordon-Reed’s "The Hemingses of Monticello", the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine Sally Hemings. But Pure Confidence treats the past as an Etch a Sketch that we can redraw as we would like it to have been rather than providing a real in-depth look at what was and what we might draw from it.

Mine, however, is a minority view. Most critics are quite taken with the play (click here to read some of their reviews), and it has already had at least six productions around the country. There were interesting moments even for me—a second act meeting between the men’s wives hints at what the play might have been if Brown had taken a less revisionist approach—and Marion McClinton, who has directed numerous productions of August Wilson plays, creates some nice stagecraft to simulate the races.

It was also good to see that at least a third of the faces in the audience were black. Seated in front of K and me were a black grandmother who was apparently treating her grandson and his white date to the play. It seemed to be the young people’s first show—despite admonitions from K, they kept surreptitiously snapping photos of the actors with their iPhone—but they were the first to leap to their feet and applaud at the end. So maybe they’ll try another show.

And it was good too to see actors who seldom get a chance to perform in New York but whose program bios suggest that they have full and active careers elsewhere. They’re a great reminder that you don’t have to live near Broadway to be able to see and enjoy live theater.

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