Florida Studio Theatre’s Pure Confidence discourses on the meaning of freedom.
By Kay Kipling
Carlyle Brown’s play Pure Confidence, onstage now at Florida Studio Theatre, has an intriguing premise based in actual if little-known history: Prior to the Civil War, there were many successful black jockeys riding in the popular sport of horse racing. Although they might have been slaves, they possessed a certain measure of freedom most of their fellows did not; they were hired out by different horse owners and allowed to keep part of the winnings they earned.
Brown has taken the facts of this era and fictionalized them with characters of his own devising. There’s feisty jockey Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence); the effusive Southern colonel (Ed Schiff) who hires him frequently to ride and has a fondness for him that nevertheless does not extend to buying him his freedom; the colonel’s strong-willed wife (Barbara Bradshaw) and her personal slave Caroline (Melanna Gray), for whom both she and Simon have a great affection.
Gavin Lawrence and Ed Schiff in FST’s Pure Confidence.
The plot hinges on Simon’s drive to buy his own freedom through his skills atop a horse named Pure Confidence, and that phrase is also something Lawrence exhibits in the role; he’s brimming with energy and force in his determination. Act I ends with a fateful act that then brings us to a new postwar time and place in Act II, raising questions about what freedom really means: Was Simon better off with his kind white “employers” in the South than he is up North as a free man?
The questions are interesting, and the performances mostly convincing, although under Kate Alexander’s direction there are some scenes that feel too slow, others too rushed, and a few line delivery hesitations cause discomfort. But the larger problem here is that Brown’s play too often feels didactic, his characters puppets mouthing sentiments the playwright wants to express without making them flow naturally. This is especially true in Act II, when a racing reporter (Richard McWilliams) shows up to interview Simon and the colonel, and we feel the whiff of a history lesson before us.
That’s unfortunate, because there are certainly moments and lines of dialogue here that do reach us emotionally and intellectually. If only more of Pure Confidence felt like pure gold instead of being alloyed with lesser metals.
Pure Confidence continues at FST through Jan. 26; call 366-9000 or go to floridstudiotheatre.org for ticket info.