Here's one of the great ironies of American sports vis-a-vis horse racing. As, one by one, our prime professional sports integrated, horse racing moved in the other direction. There just aren't many black jockeys anymore. But before the Civil War, black riders dominated. They also were slaves.
Because the best black jockeys had the ability to earn their owners a great deal of purse money in the late 19th century, they were treated better than other slaves and paid for their riding exploits. As an additional source of income, owners would frequently lease their jockey out to other owners and the rider would share in those purse winnings as well.
The playwright Carlyle Brown explores this fascinating, little known slice of American history in Pure Confidence, a sometimes rousing, often funny, but curiously tame play, which just opened at the tiny Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. Most of the first act is set in Kentucky, the second in Saratoga.
The California based dramaturge, Dylan Southard, noted, “As part of African-American history, horse racing occupies a uniquely difficult place. During the 19th century, it was one of the first sports to feature black athletes and raise them to national prominence. And yet at the same time, those athletes – those stars – remained in bondage. It's a contradiction embodied in the paternalistic tone slave owners frequently took, justifying slavery as a means of protecting and raising up black people. “
Pure Confidence best describes Simon Cato, the self-assured, cocky black jockey working for the Kentucky breeder-owner, Colonel Wiley Johnson, who leased Cato from his original owners. It's also the name of Johnson's best horse, a powerful speedball and champion earner, ridden always by Cato. Horse and rider were both superstars.
It's a complicated relationship between the owner and his rider, the master and his slave who are genuine friends because of horses and horse racing. Johnson's wife, Mattie, owns a black girl, Caroline, (coincidentally, Simon's sweetheart) and their relationship is even closer. Playwright Brown introduces us to high-minded, good-hearted white Southerners, who happen to own other people, but are beginning to realize that a) this is probably not what God intended, and b) a Civil War is about to change everything.
At the end of the first act, just days before the Civil War begins, Simon's right leg is wrecked in a suspicious three-horse accident during the stretch run of a stakes race at Saratoga.
The second act is set in a Saratoga hotel, 10 years later, during Reconstruction. Unable to ride and having gained a good deal of weight, humbled Simon, married to Caroline, is working as a bellhop. Caroline is taking in wash. They're free, but to what end? Worse, they are treated as poorly by (racist) northern whites as they were by whites in the south.
With the help of a journalist researching a story about the disappearance of black jockeys following the Civil War, Colonel Johnson and Mattie find the hotel where Simon works and they reunite. As a plot device, it seems forced, but it does help move the story along. The colonel invites the couple back to Kentucky, offering Simon the opportunity to be his full-time trainer.
We're left without knowing Simon's decision. “It seems to me the only time you're ever really free is when you get a chance to choose,” he says. “'Cause once you choose, after that you're bound to be a slave to something.”
The play is unsettling. It challenges preconceived notions of white and black and north and south, which, of course, as the playwright makes evident, is never quite what you think.
The production is clever, the stage direction is nimble, particularly considering the size of the theater. Choruses of “Camptown Races” and still projections of racing scenes provide ample backstretch atmosphere. The talented ensemble of actors is pitch perfect. The dialogue contains the worst ethnic slurs and hate filled rhetoric, but is absolutely germane to the story.
Pure Confidence runs 8pm Fridays & Saturdays, 3pm Sundays through May 14, 2017. Sacred Fools complex is located at 1076 Lillian Way Los Angeles, CA 90038. Tickets $25 – $34. Reservation at www.lower-depth.com/on-stage and (323) 960-7745. Wheelchair access and ample street parking. Be prepared.
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