Pure Confidence

There’s nothing funny about slavery.

Though it has sad and even bitter undertones, Pure Confidence is essentially a comedy. The central figure is one we recognize from myth and folklore: the trickster -- in this case, a jockey named Simon Cato who has an almost magical ability with horses. Small in stature, he's big in ambition, cheeky, insolent and constantly plotting ways to outwit those in power and better his lot. But there's one more thing: Cato is a slave in 1860s Kentucky. The horse he races belongs to his owner, Colonel Wiley "The Fox" Johnson, an essentially decent man with whom Cato delights in matching wits.

And for the most part, Cato prevails. He manages to buy Caroline, the slave owned by Johnson's wife, Mattie, so that he can marry her himself, and figures out a way to eventually win his own freedom. But then he's crippled by a terrible accident on the track, deliberately caused by white jockeys. After the Civil War, Cato and Caroline find life even more difficult. He works as a hotel bellhop, she takes in washing. Still, you know that any setback Simon Cato suffers will be temporary, thanks to his confidence and irrepressible high spirits. "I'm no slave, because I know who I am," he says at one point.

Pure Confidence has irony, intelligence, subtlety and a lot of good scenes -- a sweet, playful courtship, the searing monologue in which Cato, riding a barrel, plays out the struggle between freedom and slavery as a horse race. It's high-spirited, good-natured and often very funny, with the action framed by a toe-tapping rendition of "The Camptown Races" played between scenes. But seated in the middle of an amused and delighted audience, I felt alienated. The humor in Pure Confidence is more comfortable than savage, and the slavery depicted in the play seems almost tolerable.

Heather Alicia Simms and Gavin Lawrence have Pure Confidence.
Heather Alicia Simms and Gavin Lawrence have Pure Confidence.

A funny play about slavery? I tried to think of analogies. Could I imagine a piece about a wily Jew who utilized clever stratagems to escape Hitler's camps? Would I be able to laugh? Quite possibly. Would someone who wasn't Jewish? Maybe not. Or maybe in another hundred years.

Playwrights are blogging these days -- which means they can evaluate their critics' thinking as readily as we do theirs. Although it can be unsettling, it's also a welcome development: Why shouldn't artists respond to what is said about them in print? (One of my favorite such responses was a painter friend's letter sent to a newspaper after a reviewer there called her work insufficiently feminist. The riposte went something like, "If Ms. Blank believes the true subject of feminist art is one woman's hand reaching for another's, then let her paint it.") And besides, anything that adds to the buzz and interest surrounding a play is good. Carlyle Brown's blog means that I actually know what he intended in Pure Confidence. It was "to take what the average person thinks he or she knows about slavery and beat it with a hammer right before their eyes, in an attempt to incite a clash between the myth and the interpreted truth."

This makes sense. Our public discourse on charged and essential issues is horribly straitjacketed. Katie Couric was intensely criticized for asking John and Elizabeth Edwards whether their decision to stay in the presidential race was high-minded or selfish -- something many people had wondered. Couric had broken the rules. She had apparently forgotten that there's only one allowable way to describe cancer sufferers on television: as noble and brave.

The worn-out tropes most people employ to discuss slavery substitute for genuine knowledge, just as Brown suggests. Slavery was a huge and complex phenomenon that took many different forms, and there were no doubt slaves and owners who, like Mattie and Caroline, Cato and Johnson, felt genuine warmth toward each other. I like the fact that Brown doesn't shy away from showing this; neither does he downplay the ambiguity and anger within such relationships. But he also gives them an overlay of sentimentality.

Under Kent Gash's direction, the acting style in this Denver Center Theatre Company production is broad. There's no question that Gavin Lawrence, who plays Cato, is talented, but his portrayal is sometimes a little too cute. As is Maureen Silliman's Mattie, though the actress does reveal the living, breathing woman beneath the Southern-belle crinoline. Philip Pleasants tends to declaim, but his blustering, energetic Colonel Wiley communicates real decency and warmth. Heather Alicia Simms gives Caroline a gentle sincerity that contrasts nicely with the antics of the rest of the cast.

It's good to get an original perspective on slavery, useful to be forced into examining your preconceptions. Still, my predominant emotion as I left the theater was unease.

 
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