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A CurtainUp Review
Pure Confidence at 59E59 Theaters, is a fictionalized amalgamation of several American slave jockeys. Simon Cato is a confident, cocky slave who uses his wits to race his way to freedom. Pure Confidence is the horse Cato rides to victory in the opening race. It also defines Cato, portrayed by Gavin Lawrence with an irresistible bluster that highlights his winning manipulative skills. Lawrence leads a cast that skillfully lifts the layers of contradictions of owner and slave, bigotry and ignorance.
Colonel Wiley "The Fox" Johnson hires Cato to ride Pure Confidence. The two share a lucrative, multifaceted but well-delineated relationship. Cato is secure in his skills. The Colonel likes and admires the slave and respects his abilities, but he views Cato as an exception, never questioning the contradictions of human owner privilege. Like the other characters, he thoughtlessly uses the "N" word as a matter of speech, and the "peculiar relationship" of the South with slavery is palpable and reappears throughout the play.
Before an upcoming race, when the Colonel expects Cato to ride Pure Confidence again, the slave counters with his own deal. He demands his freedom. This despite the fact that legally the Colonel cannot free Cato because he doesn't own him. He rents Cato from a lawyer for $14 a year. Cato nevertheless persists and, through a series of wily manipulations, he convinces the Colonel to buy him from the lawyer. He then saves enough money from racing to buy his freedom from the Colonel.
Cato also manages to buy and marry Caroline, the personal slave of the Colonel's wife. He also purchases his own horse. Despite this astonishing accomplishment, freedom continues as an elusive concept throughout the play.
Director Marion McClinton, long associated with playwright August Wilson's study of the African-American journey, has turned his focus on this docudrama that's seasoned with doses of comedy and tragedy through Brown's precise, colorful dialogue. Joseph Stanley's set design is minimal but imaginative. With few props it effectively uses lighting and sound to set the moods, utilizing choruses of "Camptown Races" to open and close most scenes.
With the talented ensemble, the stage comes alive with action. One scene shows Caroline coming into the Johnson stable where Cato is sitting on a saddle strapped over a barrel. In one hand is a jug of moonshine, in the other a whip. Cato jubilantly describes to Caroline a future race in which he will be riding his own horse, Freedom, against the Bondage Man on Slavery. That neck to neck race has Cato challenging Bondage Man with "You soon be looking at my horses ass.". To add excitement, this spectacular win for Cato is staged with background sounds of a cheering crowd.
Another stunning racing sequence shows Colonel, Miss Mattie and Caroline in Saratoga, watching as Gavin Lawrence portrays Cato on horseback, speeding around the track. Intensified by dramatic lighting and thundering hooves, we imagine the horse, the track, the speed. Suddenly Cato falls, is trampled, and almost crippled. His career is over. Ironically it coincides with the beginning of the Civil War.
Mark Sieve's convincing dual portrayals of arrogant Southern slave owner, George DeWitt and later the bigoted Saratoga, N.Y., hotel clerk, neatly reveal national attitudes. Chris Mulkey as the Colonel and his wife, Miss Mattie, care deeply for Cato and Caroline but do not question the morality of their ownership. Portrayed with sweet and salty conviction by Karen Landry, Mattie clearly sees situations that are directly in front of her, but she easily accepts the dichotomy, telling the submissive Caroline, "You are like a daughter to me", and pointing out to the Colonel the investment opportunities of buying Cato.
Christiana Clark portrays Caroline, at first a cowering, virtually silent slave as she follows Miss Mattie around then brought to life by Cato's exuberance. He prods her smothered spirit, her latent humor and sensitivity. Yet after they marry, he begins to beat her. Years later, when Caroline and Mattie meet again in Saratoga, Caroline reveals that as she nursed Cato after his accident, she warned him, "If you ever hit me again I'm going to brake you up like you all broke up right now. . .We've been going on ever since."
Act I sketches the situation and characters and Act II fleshes out their complexities. That act moves forward to 1877, and we see that freedom has been no less welcoming for Cato. The virulence of the racial divide is as prevalent in the North as in the South. When the Colonel and Cato speak privately in the hotel lobby, they reveal the changes and similarities in both their lives. Cato admits, "Freedom ain'something you can just give away I guess." The two come to as close an understanding as they can. We are left to guess whether that understanding will make Cato regain some of the exuberance evident in the first act, despite his sum up of Freedom's elusiveness to Caroline "it seems to me that the only time you're ever really free is when you get a chance to choose. 'Cause once you choose, after that you bound to be a slave to something"