Dallas — Ask people today to identify America’s most popular sport and many will say baseball. Were we able to ask people of the 19th century, the answer would have been horse racing.
By the time of the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875, the majority of the jockeys were black men, former slaves. This makes sense considering the slaves cared for the horses, knowing best how to handle them. Of the first 28 Derbies, black jockeys won 15. Their earnings were good, enabling them to live decently. A few of the top riders were even able acquire property. The black jockeys maintained their dominance in the field until boxed out of the industry due in large part to jealousy from white jockeys, and racism. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that through the freeing of the slaves the white stable owners’ profits shrank. Removal and replacement of black jockeys effected the attempted erasure of their legacy. Indeed, there were no black jockeys at the Kentucky Derby after 1921 until 2000.
Carlyle Brown cracks a window open to this history in his 2005 play Pure Confidence. The African American Repertory Theatre production at Mountain View College, the play’s regional premiere under the direction of Regina Washington, is meaningful and timely.
Simon Cato (Darren McElroy) is owned by two orphaned wealthy little white children who are too young to manage their property or financial affairs. Simon is known throughout the area as having a gift for training horses. Colonel Wiley Johnson (Christian Taylor) is looking for someone to train and race his horses. Seeing a match, the children’s attorney hires Simon out to Wiley. Simon and Wiley find that they are connected through a mutual affection for horses and racing. Their relationship is a bit different because while Simon is a slave and subject to laws of the times, he does not belong to Wiley.
Wiley and his wife, Mattie (Jo-Jo Steine) believe themselves to be friends with Simon and Mattie’s attendant, Caroline (Raven Lawes). This is a point of constant correction and check by Simon who seeks a way to buy his freedom. George DeWitt (Ken Orman), Wiley’s neighbor and competitor, tries to finagle a way to get Simon to leave Wiley and work for him because he believes it will give him a competitive edge over Wiley at the races.
Obsessed with the idea of buying his freedom, Simon eventually convinces Wiley to buy him from the children. That way, Simon could work for Wiley as an indentured servant and pay his price more quickly by using his cut of the winnings from racing. It was a win-win situation, giving Wiley the best groom for his stables. Neither of them factored in the Civil War.
Brown not only goes inside this ignored sector of American history, he does so while bringing forward conversations and tensions from the period preceding and following the Civil War. From Wiley’s perspective, Simon already lives a life of freedom because of what his life as a jockey affords him. Frustrated, Simon questions how Wiley can say he is already free when he as a grown man is owned by children?
Washington has assembled a cast that works together very well, framed by Van Williams’ set. Steine and Lawes are stirring as Mattie and Caroline have what amounts to a real conversation for the first time. The female characters clarify the paradox of that era.
McElroy and Taylor effectively dramatize the natural tensions between two Alpha males and the darkened complexity when one of them has no power.
As DeWitt and as the Clerk, it falls to Orman to portray the overtly racist characters in the play. He doesn’t push and is uncomfortably effective in each role. Parker Fitzgerald also covers two roles, but it is as the reporter that he has the opportunity to enhance the story.
Pure Confidence brings the complexity of the slave-owner relationship to the stage thoughtfully and with neither lacquer nor veils. AART has handled the piece with respect.