BWW Review: West Coast Premiere of PURE CONFIDENCE Races to the Top of the Pack
Since I left the theater last Sunday, I have been singing "Camptown Races" (sometimes referred to as "Camptown Ladies"), a comic song written by Stephen Foster, known as the father of American music who was considered the pre-eminent songwriter in the United States of the 19th century. Appropriately, the song was published in 1850 in Foster's Plantation Melodies, making it the perfect theme song for PURE CONFIDENCE, a play set in the high-stakes world of Civil War-era horse racing. This surprisingly funny and daring story takes a look at the complexity of race relations, love and dignity in the second half of the nineteenth century. Against a vivid backdrop of fast horses, gritty racetracks and high-stakes betting, it's an extraordinary tale of human triumphs and failings.The captivating drama set during a time of slavery and Reconstruction centers on Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salyers, the perfect Southern Gentleman) who employs slave Simon Cato, a smart, cocky 'colored' jockey, and his horse, Pure Confidence, to win races to keep his "farm" afloat. Cato (the riveting Armond Edward Dorsey) is in no way subservient, often challenging Johnson by speaking to him as an equal, causing Johnson to retort, "Try to behave like a slave for a few minutes." But Cato knows his worth, even though employed elsewhere to care for two white children while rented to race by the Colonel at $14 a year, and is prepared to speak his mind, often to his own detriment. But as he keeps winning races and gaining fame, the only thing Cato really wants is his freedom to marry and move north where he can compete against white jockeys to cement his place in horse racing history. The play's exploration of how Cato uses his wits and championship winnings to buy his and his wife's freedom, and how the Civil War changed everything, presents a captivating tale of overcoming the odds no matter what obstacles are thrown in your way.
Southern Plantation Belle Mattie Johnson is played expertly with a wink and a nod by Deborah Puette as a more modern woman than you would think could possibly exist during the Civil War era. Her "girl" Caroline (Tamarra Graham) is more of a personal companion rather than just a household servant, with their many intimate conversations about love and marriage, as well as the foibles of men, ones still appropriate today. These women know their place and how to get what they want without overstepping their place.And of course, when Caroline is bought by Cato after Mattie negotiates the fee and requires the two to marry in front of a Christian preacher, she could not be more thrilled at obtaining her freedom as well as a husband who she believes will always be able to take of her and their children. Little does she know the type of life she will have with Cato may make her wish to return to her former world, especially after he suffers a career-ending injury and must find other means of employment as a hotel bellboy. A fateful, unexpected meeting with their former owners in the lobby thankfully turns things around for all of them.
Director Marya Mazor has breathed life in Carlyle Brown's script, often using actors in freezes at the side of the main stage, allowing her to show off the attitude and reaction of each character as they listen to those onstage. Most notably is the pose with Miss Mattie being shaded by a fancy parasol held aloft by Caroline standing just behind her, or Cato with his horse whip in hand over his head as if pushing Pure Confidence on to win yet another race while the Colonel and George DeWitt (Eamon Hunt, characteristically throwing the "n" word around every chance he gets) negotiate the purse for his next race. Then there is newspaper reporter Tom Rolan (Dylan John Seaton) posed with notebook in hand while the two couples meet in the hotel lobby in 1877, an event he orchestrated in order to interview Cato about his former horse-racing fame.
Kudos also go out to the technical staff, from the small stage set design by Tom Buderwitz, expert lighting design by Pablo Santiago, sound design by John Nobori, beautiful, period costumes designed by Mylette Nora, and magnificent historical projections by Nicholas Santiago. Along with the cast and director, their talents combine to make this show work well as a true ensemble piece.
PURE CONFIDENCE is presented by Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, a group dedicated to presenting the finest in classical, contemporary and emerging American Theatre through the lens of the artist of color. Their aim is to explore the truth and reality that lies beneath the lower depth of our existence by offering our audiences thought-provoking, challenging and humorous looks at the human spirit. This has to be one of their finest productions, which I strongly encourage you to attend. May it open your eyes to the viewpoint of others doing their best to live in society, no matter the timeframe. More information at www.lowerdepththeatreensemble.org Twitter: @LDTE, Facebook: lowerdepth, Instagram: LDTE
PURE CONFIDENCE runs at 8pm Fridays & Saturdays, 3pm Sundays through April 30, 2017 at SacRed Fools, located at 1076 Lillian Way Los Angeles, CA 90038 (theater entrance is on Santa Monica Blvd.) Tickets $25 - $34. Reservations at www.lower-depth.com/on-stage and (323) 960-7745. Wheelchair access and ample street parking.
Photos by Ed Krieger