Pure confidence is just one of the qualities distinguishing Simon Kato from his fellow Kentucky slaves in the year 1860. Another is the champion jockey’s talent for winning any race he sets his mind to, and these days what Simon wants to win (or more precisely to buy) is his freedom.
Welcome to the world of Carlyle Brown’s Pure Confidence, the latest from Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble and quite possibly the most purely entertaining (and elucidating and emotionally powerful) show in town.
Here’s a bit of pre-Civil War trivia you probably didn’t know.
Slaves like Simon Kato (not that there were all that many with gifts as extraordinary as his) could be hired out to the highest bidder and pocket a percentage of the “rental” fee as their own.
For Simon (Armond Edward Dorsey), this means being auctioned out to Colonel Wiley Johnson (William Salyers), much of whose fortune stems from Simon’s talent for jockeying the Colonel’s stallion Pure Confidence to victory again and again and again.
Then comes the day that sore-losing fellow horse owner George Dewitt (Eamon Hunt) challenges the Colonel to a duel, and when the challenged party picks horses as his weapon of choice, Simon comes up with arguably the smartest scheme ever conceived by a slave hoping to buy back his freedom.
The next time he’s put up for auction for a day’s labor, Simon will make sure Dewitt is there to bid against Colonel Johnson, thereby not only convincing the Colonel of just how much his jockey is worth but coming that much closer to purchasing his freedom.
And we’re only a few scenes into what is already developing into as purely enthralling a play as you’re likely to see anytime soon, one that also introduces us to Colonel Johnson’s steel magnolia of a wife Mattie (Deborah Puette) and to Mattie’s “girl” Caroline (Tamarra Graham), who despite some invariably one-sided conversations, may well be her mistress’s closest friend.
There’s not one of Pure Confidence’s four lead characters who doesn’t defy slavery-era stereotypes, beginning with Simon, so confident of his gifts and of the Colonel’s need for them that he never once thinks twice about speaking his mind, and though Colonel Johnson spouts the n-word with frequency (if not necessarily with malice), he’s the furthest thing from a mustache-twirling Simon Legree imaginable.
And then there’s Mattie, who finds Simon’s desire for freedom “perfectly natural,” and Caroline, so full of sass when away from her mistress that it’s no wonder a head-over-heels Simon finds himself for once in his life speechless.
As history lesson, as character study, as a pair of love stories and more, Pure Confidence held me in its spell from start to finish under Marya Mazor’s stylish direction.
Dorsey’s charismatic, captivating L.A. stage debut is as revelatory as is Simon’s unexpected life in the pre-Civil War South. The marvelous Salyer’s great big bear of a Colonel finds himself no match for either slave or wife. Puette (incandescent) and Graham (beguiling) are both stunning, their two scenes together, one as mistress and slave and the other in quite different roles, leaving among the production’s most indelible impressions.
Dylan John Seaton is absolutely terrific as both a folksy auctioneer and as Tom Roland, a New York City reporter who a hundred-fifty years later would be hosting his own reality TV show, and Hunt gives us a couple of neatly delineated characters as well, the second being a snooty Saratoga hotel clerk.
Tom Buderwitz’s gorgeous panoramic set transports us to bluegrass Kentucky and beyond, complemented by Pablo Santiago’s vibrant lighting design and Nick Santiago’s striking projections (snaps to the Civil War-era daguerreotypes and minstrel-show footage). John Nobori’s sound design mixes real and enhanced effects to impressive effect, with Mylette Nora’s gorgeous period costumes and Michael Allen Angel’s just-right props completing a production design that would look just as fabulous on a much larger stage.
Pure Confidence is produced by Racquel Lehrman/Theatre Planners. Gregg T. Daniel is Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble artistic director.
Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs. Rita Cofield is stage manager. Dylan Southard is dramaturg. Adam Michael Rose is dialect coach.
A tale we’ve not yet heard, characters we’ve never before met, history as drama spiced with laughter and tears. Pure Confidence could just as easily be titled Pure Perfection.
Sacred Fools Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. Through April 30. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 323 960-7745
April 15, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger