Pure Confidence

[The following review ran in the Denver Post on Thursday, April 5th.]

Like empires before it, America established and furthered itself through slavery, its most insidious form being the kidnapping and importation of Africans. Blacks, of course, weren't the only human chattel (consider the legal status of women), but nothing was as inhumane and profane as that "peculiar institution" which ruled over them.

Of the multitude of stories that have been written about slavery, Pure Confidence, the current production from the pen of Carlyle Brown (The African Company Presents Richard III, The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, et al.) now in production by the Denver Center Theatre Company, is unique in its brave, bold humor and insights to the personal details of the relationships between owners and slaves.

Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Based on a composite of the lives of two of the greatest pre-Civil War horseracing jockeys, the story cuts a swath from the bluegrass of Kentucky to the bluebloods of Saratoga, NY, following Simon Cato's quest for freedom and his unusually fluent relationships with his owner and other whites that were sustained by his athletic talent and horse sense.

In a riveting performance, Gavin Lawrence brings together in Simon the bravado and creativity of a spirit driven to be his own man in a world that conspires against such aspirations from people of color. Overflowing with a zest for life and all its possibilities, Simon carries us full circle in his pursuit, discovering deeper truths about freedom than he ever imagined.

(L to R) Philip Pleasants as Colonel Wiley 'The Fox' Johnson and Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
(L to R) Philip Pleasants as
Colonel Wiley "The Fox" Johnson
and Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
Photo: Terry Shapiro
His journey is sometimes aided, sometimes hindered, by his owner, Colonel Wiley "The Fox" Johnson, rendered to perfection by Philip Pleasants. From the coiffed white mane and goatee down to the mellifluous drawl, Pleasants imbues the Colonel with archetypal forces, mixing the empowerment of an aristocrat with the instincts and smarts of a horse breeder and trader. But he, too, has a boss.

In a nod to the feminine pillars that upheld Southern gentility, the Colonel's wife, Mattie Johnson, rules the household with a mix of devious cunning and Solomonic wisdom.

Though draped in Austin K. Sanderson's lavish antebellum dresses, Maureen Silliman cuts through any stereotypes we may associate with such trappings and delivers Mattie with a heart big enough to overcome generations of intolerance and inertia, eventually becoming a true friend to her one-time slave and confidant, Caroline.

(L to R) Heather Alicia Simms as Caroline and Maureen Silliman as Mattie Johnson
(L to R) Heather Alicia Simms as Caroline
and Maureen Silliman as Mattie Johnson
Photo: Terry Shapiro
During a theatrical moment that sets Pure Confidence apart in its contribution to racial healing, Mattie is confronted by Caroline over the nature of their relationship. In what must go down as one of the most pregnant silences in stage history, Mattie and Caroline's past and future come to a head after Caroline describes the sale of slaves in Savannah and asks Mattie if she knows what happened to "her people" - her parents and siblings.

Silliman's incrementally-detailed gestation and poignant response slams the door on bigotry in an exquisite personal realization inclusive of all perpetrators coming to grips with their own victimization.

Heather Alicia Simms harnesses deep-seated power and dignity in the statuesque and patient Caroline—whose regal disposition and eloquent, well-honed brevity are the catalysts for moving the mountains of racial and gender prejudice encapsulated here. It's fitting that her final, humorous observation draws the play to a close.

Director Kent Gash's finely-tuned ensemble is topped off—and the Kentucky and Saratoga scenes rounded out—by deft turns from Mike Hartman, as a horseracing rival and hotel clerk, and David Ivers as the auctioneer and the reporter. Emily Beck's alternately impressionistic and realistic sets compliment the idyllic times and harsh realities spanned by the story. Subtle lighting contributions from Liz Lee and telling musical choices from Eric Stahlhammer punctuate the dramatic arc.

Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
Gavin Lawrence as Simon Cato
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Brown's take on the intimacies and friendships that developed between slaves and owners may not be new, but the scope and originality he gives such details surpasses any script on the subject—his use of the n-word notwithstanding, which comes across as a natural part of the dialogue and critical element of the play's accuracy. It may be as difficult for some audience members to accept the truth of such relationships and language as it was for the Colonel and Mattie to overcome their own biases, but there's no denying that the playwright has captured the living, breathing essence of history.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence runs through April 21st. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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