Freedom is one of America’s core ideas—but freedom itself is a slippery concept. For the Puritans, freedom from an oppressive king and onerous taxes did not mean freedom from hardship, hunger, or violence. Much of America’s immigrant population traded freedom from war and various forms of injustice for grueling factory and field work in squalid, subhuman conditions. And even today, while most Americans would say they are technically “free,” they are nevertheless slaves to their jobs, mortgages, responsibilities, and various needs, wants, and desires, few of which can ever be fully satisfied for long.
No group of people has experienced the paradoxes of freedom more acutely than our African American population, and its these complexities and contradictions that make Pure Confidence , at Mixed Blood Theatre, written by local playwright Carlyle Brown, so engaging. That and the fact that it’s a very funny, moving play, acted and directed (by Marion McClinton) with as much confidence as the title suggests.
Set in 1861, just before the Civil War, and then fifteen years into reconstruction, Pure Confidence tells the true story of Simon Cato (played by Gavin Lawrence), widely considered the best jockey in country at the time. Though he enjoys a great deal of success and gets generous kickbacks for winning, Cato is still a slave who gets rented out to racehorse owners for fourteen dollars a day. Cato is a smart, entrepreneurial guy, though. His big idea is to convince the retired colonel who rents him every weekend to “buy” him, after which Cato plans to earn enough money to buy himself—and his freedom—from the colonel.
The word “confidence” in the play has several meanings, however. First and foremost, Pure Confidence is the name of the racehorse owned by Colonel Wiley Johnson (played by Chris Mulkey). It also describes Cato’s overall character and attitude, which Gavin Lawrence brings to the stage with a brash, infectious spirit that moves the play along at a brisk gallop.
As it relates to the darker, more tragic, more interesting side of the play, however, it’s the “con” in confidence that matters. Because for Cato, freedom turns out to be a con game in which the rules continually shift beneath him. No matter how hard he works, he can never reach his goal, because the rules of the game keep changing. After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, he technically has his freedom, but ends up losing most of his fame and much of his dignity. Arguably, he was freer before the war.
The casting and direction of this Mixed Blood production are solid throughout. In our Best Of issue, I went out on a limb and predicted—based on the pedigree of the play and the caliber of talent involved—that Pure Confidence would be one of the best plays of the winter season. We’re only a few weeks into the new year, but I feel no need to reconsider that assessment. Pure Confidence is a sure bet.
Pure Confidence continues at Mixed Blood Theatre through Feb. 1., mixedblood.com