When we first see the character of Caroline (Christiana Clark) in Carlyle Brown's play "Pure Confidence," at 59E59 Theaters through July 3, she is like an afterthought, an extra in the scene, an antebellum slave girl holding a lace parasol above her white mistress from a doorway, her eyes cast down, speaking only in assent to orders, albeit gently delivered orders. By one of the climactic scenes, she delivers a speech so searing it is like watching someone take control of her life for the first time. Such transformations are the stuff of great theater, especially when they sneak up on you like that.
The play is primarily about Caroline's husband, a black jockey named Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence) who acquires fame, even as he struggles to buy his freedom in the days leading up to the Civil War. He is a slave, but only in name; his brash take-the-reins attitude is evident from the first scene. As Caroline's mistress ("Mattie," played by Karen Landry) says to her husband, the Colonel (Chris Mulkey), who hires Simon as a freelancer to ride his horse Pure Confidence: "He's already more free than you'll ever be." The second act is years after the war: Simon has chosen to damp some, but not all, of his fire to make do in a new job and a changed landscape. You still see him bristle against the exigencies of the era, but this is the moment for his wife to confront their past and shine. The final scene is a simple pas de deux that barely needs any spoken lines to capture the right emotions.
The play isn't without its flaws -- the heavy use of the n-word may be historically accurate, but it could have delivered the same apt punch without so much of the repetition and the symbolism of slave and master, horse and rider, owned and rented is a little obvious at times -- but it succeeds by focusing on the interrelationships among the older white couple and the younger black pair. Well worth a standing ovation at the end. The production is visiting from Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis.