The pernicious notion of human slavery reached its zenith in America with the dehumanizing subjugation of an entire racial population. True, there is a record of slavery since biblical times; those patriarchs had slaves, and multiple wives, seven hundred for Solomon plus three hundred concubines according to the Bible. The Romans famously had Greek slaves as well as galley slaves. Arabs were famous slavers who stole people and sold them for profit. But it was in the United States of America that slavery was written into the Constitution and became the American South’s “peculiar institution.”
Carlyle Brown’s Pure Confidence, a West Coast premiere produced by Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble at Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, tells a story of horse racing and slavery before and after the Civil War. Before the war, most jockeys in America were slaves, and in this story a peerless jockey named Simon Cato (an exuberant Armond Edward Dorsey) races a champion thoroughbred called Pure Confidence for Colonel Wiley Johnson (amiable William Salyers). The Colonel doesn’t own Simon, but rather hires him for each race he runs. Simon is technically owned by two young girls who inherited him when their parents died. A lawyer takes care of the details.
Simon is extraordinary and knows it. Not only is he a premier jockey, he knows and understands horses. He is a trainer. Not surprisingly, his one desire is to be free. As might be imagined, the course of that aspiration does not run straight and true. The story of that quest makes for two fascinating acts of pure theatre.
The Colonel’s wife, Mattie (excellent Deborah Puette), is a sharp, self-possessed woman with an abiding love for her husband, whom she controls with stern affection. She also cares deeply for her personal slave, her “girl” Caroline (a most affecting Tamarra Graham). A play needs conflict, and besides the obvious conflict between freedom and slavery, tension is created when the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Cato maligns the loser of a race, snarling racist George Dewitt, (Eamon Hunt—an equally offensive hotel desk clerk in the second act). As the auctioneer who takes bids on the labor of slaves, Tom Roland plays a dullard easily manipulated by Simon, and later appears as an amoral newspaper reporter who represents the racism of the North.
Directed by Marya Mazor, Pure Confidence is spellbinding entertainment made all the more affecting by the closeness of players to the audience in the intimate Black Box Theatre. The limited space means that some compromises are necessary in production. The scenic design by Tom Buderwitz is simple and effective, consisting of a unit set with two platform levels against a backdrop of walls made of wooden slats that slide open and closed. Furniture pieces and other props are carried on and off by an unobtrusive, very focused cast who, from time to time, must hold position within site of the audience for lengthy times. Their presence will draw the audience eye, but will not linger long on the relaxed visages of the players. Lighting by Pablo Santiago is appropriately transparent and the projections by Nicholas Santiago add tremendously to the impact of the show. The sound design by John Nobori is excellent with music resonant of the period. Costumes designed by Mylette Nora support character and the period of the drama, as do the props designed by Michael Allen Angel.
The play builds to an unlooked for conclusion in the final moments that had this audience member deeply touched.
For an excellent companion to this theatrical experience, you cannot do better than the terrific novel The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan, which greatly expands on horse racing, the relationship between master and slave, and the subsequent dominance of Jim Crow with all that it portends.
Pure Confidence plays at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3pm Sundays through April 30 at Sacred Fools Black Box Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way in Los Angeles (entrance on Santa Monica Blvd).