March 22, 2007 — April 21, 2007
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Kent Gash
March 22 – April 21, 2007
(Opening March 29)
The Stage Theatre
The high stakes world of Civil War-era horse racing is the stage for this riveting drama of slavery and Reconstruction. Both Simon Cato, a smart, cocky “colored” jockey, and his horse, Pure Confidence, are owned by Colonel Wiley Johnson. Cato uses his wits and his championship winnings to buy his and his wife’s freedom. But the Civil War changes everything and the passage of time doesn’t bring Cato the success he expects. A surprisingly funny, daring and emotionally moving look at the complexity of race, humanity, love and dignity in the second half of the 19th century. Pure Confidence was the favorite pick of the Humana Festival in 2005.
“One surefire crowd-pleaser.” — The New York Times
Pure Confidence runs approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Black jockey races to win freedom in time of slavery
By Bob Bows
Special to The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 04/05/2007 12:23:53 AM MDT
Heather Alicia Simms, left, and Maureen Silliman star in the Denver Center Theatre Company production of “Pure Confidence,” the surprisingly funny tale of a Civil War jockey. It’s at the Stage Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex through April 21. (Terry Shapiro )
Like empires before it, America established and furthered itself through slavery, its most insidious form being the kidnapping and importation of Africans. Blacks, of course, weren’t the only human chattel (consider the legal status of women), but nothing was as profane as that “peculiar institution” that ruled over them.
Of the multitude of stories written about slavery, “Pure Confidence,” the current production from the pen of Carlyle Brown (“The African Company Presents Richard III,” “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show”) now at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is unique in its brave, bold humor and insights to the personal details of the relationships between owners and slaves.
Based on the life of the greatest pre-Civil War horse racing jockey, the story cuts a swath from the bluegrass of Kentucky to the bluebloods of Saratoga, N.Y., following Simon Cato’s quest for freedom and his unusually fluent relationships with his owner and other whites who were sustained by his athletic talent and horse sense.
In a riveting performance, Gavin Lawrence brings together in Simon the bravado and creativity of a spirit driven to be his own man in a world that conspires against such aspirations from people of color. Overflowing with a zest for life and all its possibilities, Simon carries us full circle in his pursuit, discovering deeper truths about freedom than he ever imagined.
His journey is sometimes aided, sometimes hindered, by his owner, Col. Wiley “The Fox” Johnson, rendered to perfection by Philip Pleasants. From the coiffed white mane and goatee down to the mellifluous drawl, Pleasants imbues the colonel with archetypal forces, mixing the empowerment of an aristocrat with the instincts and smarts of a horse breeder and trader. But he, too, has a boss.
In a nod to the feminine pillars that upheld Southern gentility, the colonel’s wife, Mattie Johnson, rules the household with a mix of devious cunning and Solomonic wisdom.
Though draped in Austin K. Sanderson’s lavish antebellum dresses, Maureen Silliman cuts through any stereotypes we may associate with such trappings and delivers Mattie with a heart big enough to overcome generations of intolerance and inertia, eventually becoming a true friend to her one-time slave and confidant, Caroline.
During a theatrical moment that sets “Pure Confidence” apart in its contribution to racial healing, Mattie is confronted by Caroline over the nature of their relationship. In what must go down as one of the most pregnant silences in stage history, Mattie and Caroline’s past and future come to a head after Caroline describes the sale of slaves in Savannah and asks Mattie if she knows what happened to “her people” – her parents and siblings.
Silliman’s incrementally detailed gestation and poignant response slams the door on bigotry in an exquisite personal realization inclusive of all perpetrators coming to grips with their own victimization.
Heather Alicia Simms harnesses deep-seated power and dignity in the statuesque and patient Caroline, whose regal disposition and eloquent brevity are catalysts for moving the mountains of racial and gender prejudice. It’s fitting that her final, humorous observation draws the play to a close.
Director Kent Gash’s finely-tuned ensemble is topped off – and the Kentucky and Saratoga scenes rounded out – by deft turns from Mike Hartman, as a horse racing rival and hotel clerk, and David Ivers as the auctioneer and the reporter. Emily Beck’s alternately impressionistic and realistic sets complement the play’s arc. So do Liz Lee’s subtle lighting contributions and Eric Stahlhammer’s telling musical choices.
Brown’s take on the intimacies and friendships that developed between slaves and owners may not be new, but the scope and originality he gives such details surpass any script on the subject – his use of the n-word notwithstanding, which comes across as a natural part of the dialogue and critical element of the play’s accuracy. It may be as difficult for some audience members to accept the truth of such relationships and language as it was for the Colonel and Mattie to overcome their own biases, but there’s no denying that the playwright has captured the living, breathing essence of history.
Bob Bows also reviews theater for Variety, for KUVO/89.3 FM, and for his own website. He can be reached at BBows@coloradodrama.com. Visit his website at coloradodrama.com.
| “Pure Confidence”
DRAMA|Denver Center Theatre Company|Written by Carlyle Brown|Directed by Kent Gash|Starring Gavin Lawrence, Philip Pleasants, Maureen Silliman and Heather Alicia Simms|THROUGH APRIL 21|At the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex|6:30 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays|2 hours, 25 minutes|$36-$46|303-893-4100, 866-464-2626, all King Soopers or denver center.org; 800-641-1222 outside Denver