When we grouse about the invisible chains that bind our lives, it's worth bearing in mind the millions in this country's history whose bondage was literal and inescapable. Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence at Mixed Blood evokes the era of slavery (and its aftermath) with insight, subtlety, and a thorough respect for the lives it depicts.
Our primary hero is Simon Cato (Gavin Lawrence), an immensely talented jockey and horse trainer who also happens to be a slave (the action begins in the South in 1861). It takes a little while for this fact to settle in, because Simon in the opening scene is brash and cocky, jazzed up, and as radiant as a klieg light. He enters having just won a race, and he wastes no time insulting local white blowhard George DeWitt (Mark Sieve) to his face.
Simon's primary ally here is Colonel Wiley Johnson (Chris Mulkey), who hires the slave to race his horse (whose name is the source of the play's title). The two are intimate, amused by one another, with Mulkey laying on cagey cynicism in a character smart enough to recognize Simon's brilliance but entrenched enough in the world to understand he can't do much about it. (After Simon lays another zinger on the flustered DeWitt, the Colonel hisses an entreaty at him to "try and behave like a slave.")
Playwright Brown teases away at what follows with a delicacy that renders each major character in some way sympathetic, and director Marion McClinton guides what is both a breezy story and a deceptively profound take on the interplay between circumstance, self-interest, and will that restlessly abstains from easy formulation or historical point-scoring.
Simon, it turns out, has an idea that drives the remainder of the first act: He wants Johnson to buy him from his owners, so that he can work for the Colonel full-time and save enough money to buy his freedom. The Colonel wants no part of it, until he's talked into the idea by his wife, Mattie (Karen Landry, playing her plantation matron sly and self-absorbed). Matters go as swimmingly as they can, given the circumstances, until the Colonel begins raising the price of Simon's freedom every time he nears the asking price (Mulkey delivers the news with a cool dispassion that slices through Simon and the Colonel's rapport and amusing banter).
Along the way, Simon falls for Mattie's attendant slave Caroline (Regina Marie Williams), buys her, then ponies up for a horse of his own, all the while expanding his renown as the most talented jockey around. And Lawrence keeps convincing us that all of this is possible, performing with total expansiveness without slipping (overly often) into grandiosity.
And here lies the central paradox of the story, of course: between the freedom Simon experiences flying through the air on horses and the circumstances of his life. (At one point he gets loaded and, in an effort to woo Caroline, climbs aboard a barrel and mimics the unfettered abandon he feels when riding, evoking the passion and yearning welled up in the hearts of the enslaved.) He is a sun around which others orbit, he is a genius on horseback—and nearly all he can think about is obtaining a piece of paper that decrees that no one owns him.
The second act takes place more than 15 years later, when our major players reconvene with Simon in considerably reduced circumstances. It's to everyone's credit that this feels like an entirely different play for a while, muted and sad, until old connections are tested to see if they still conduct electricity, and a few wrongs from the past are aired out. By the end, everyone stands poised perfectly between past and future, like all of us, all the time. Simon gets one last killer line, a long kiss from Caroline, then he looks into the eternal now with some understanding of where he's been (poised, for the moment, finally, in perfect freedom).