“Pure Confidence” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

There are some plays which are realistic, “kitchen-sink” dramas – every moment as gritty and believable as if you’re doing the dishes. Then there are plays which are highly “theatrical” and flamboyant, not pretending to realism, but rather emphasizing the meta experience of people watching other people perform on a stage.

Then there’s Pure Confidence, which somehow manages to give us the best of both: a highly-stylized pageant, as it were, of a certain slice of life in Kentucky before the Civil War, and in Saratoga Springs, New York after it. Though we’re aware at every moment that we’re watching a theatrical production, it nevertheless manages to be thoroughly believable and engrossing.

Simon Cato (Armond Edward Dorsey) is a highly successful jockey, one of the most successful horsemen of the pre-Civil War South – from the way people talk about him, he might have been the original Horse Whisperer, as he seems to have a magic touch when it comes to horses. He’s African-American, though, which means he’s a slave, so most of his winnings go to his owner, Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salyers), who also owns the horse Simon rides, Pure Confidence. Well, technically, Colonel Johnson doesn’t own Simon; the jockey is owned by an estate benefiting a couple of children, which gives the Colonel the perfect excuse as to why he can’t set Simon free.

L-R Armond Edward Dorsey, William Salyers, Eamon Hunt. Photo: Ed Krieger

But Simon isn’t the usual kowtowing slave we’ve come to expect from old movies: he knows his worth, he’s ambitious and outspoken, and has no compunction insulting a blowhard rival of the Colonel’s, George Dewitt (Eamon Hunt), who’s so offended he challenges the Colonel to a duel. Simon is proud, and determined to be free, even if it means finagling the Colonel into purchasing him from the estate, and then saving up to buy himself from the Colonel.

L-R Armond Edward Dorsey, Deborah Puette, William Salyers, Tamarra Graham. Photo: Ed Krieger

In the meantime, Simon makes a few other purchases: the slave girl Caroline (Tamarra Graham), whom he buys from the Colonel’s wife Mattie (Deborah Puette), with Mattie specifying she’ll only agree to the sale if the two slaves will get properly married. And Simon also buys himself a horse. It’s an ugly animal, according to the Colonel, but Simon can see its potential, and knows he can make a lot of money winning races on his own horse, without having to split winnings with the Colonel – and with more money, his freedom will come sooner!

However, those damn Yankees up north aren’t as gallant as the gracious Southerners, especially when it comes to horseracing: their jockeys play dirty, and have no mercy when winning is the prize. In upstate New York, in the climactic race which ends the first act, Simon – on his own horse – becomes the victim of a squeeze play, winds up seriously injured, and his steed must be euthanized. And as if the personal tragedy isn’t enough, hostilities have broken out between the North and the South, and the country is at war.

The second act takes place ten years later, after the war, in Saratoga Springs, the scene of the tragic race. Simon – with a pronounced limp – is a hotel bellhop, his sporting days long over. Caroline takes in washing and does other domestic chores, and the couple ekes out an existence, chastened by the loss of two children at birth.

L-R, Armond Edward Dorsey, Dylan John Seaton, Eamon Hunt. Photo: Ed Krieger

A sportswriter for a New York paper (Dylan John Seaton) recognizes Simon and, in hopes of a story, brings the Colonel and Mattie from Kentucky for a reunion with their former slaves. It’s a bittersweet meeting, as dreams of former glory commingle with anger, regret, and the stark realization that, though the couples started out as owners and property, they may end as friends.

The cast is superb, with all hands commanding and theatrical, yet so utterly committed to the moments at hand that there’s not a false note in the evening. Of special mention: in the second act, Mr. Salyers and Ms Puette manage the trick of making themselves seem older and more infirm so subtly, yet so convincingly, that one finds it hard to think of them any other way, even though we’ve seen them “younger” just minutes before.

The set by Tom Buderwitz is simple but imposing, and is craftily lit by Pablo Santiago and enhanced by projections by Nick Santiago. The costumes by Mylette Nora are precise and sumptuous, with witty touches.

Tamarra Graham, Armond Edward Dorsey. Photo: Ed Krieger

Marya Mazor has directed with a sure and stylish hand. Her decision to place actors not in a scene off to the side – visible, but frozen in theatricalized poses – emphasizes the duality of the piece as theatre: artificial by its nature, even as a thoroughly human story is being told in front of us.

Pure Confidence is a dynamic and challenging work by Carlyle Brown, being given a splendid production by the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble. Like Lower Depth’s previous production Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, Pure Confidence shows us another facet of the African-American life experience. It does so with confidence, talent, and compassion, and is thoroughly engaging. Go.

Pure Confidence
Written by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Marya Mazor

Through April 30

Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble @ Sacred Fools Theatre
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Tickets: 323-960-7745 or www.lower-depth.com/on-stage


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