Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Black History, Black Citizenry

Strictly speaking, Pure Confidence (at 59E59) is “pre-Obama”: its first major production was at the 2005 Humana Festival. But Carlyle Brown's play about Emancipation gains a length in historical perspective with a black man in the White House. Using an athletic footnote (most jockeys in the antebellum South were slaves), Brown takes us back to the original sea-change in the African-American's status as a US citizen.

The show's essentially a four-hander involving a jockey, his owner, and their wives, focusing with varying degrees of concentration on how the Civil War altered the relationship between (former) masters and their slaves. It's surprisingly uncynical--maybe it prefigures the optimism that Obama's election brings to Black America?--without being Pollyanna-ish about the shortcomings of Emancipation.

As entertainment, however, the show's uneven: when director Marion McClinton had worked on August Wilson's plays, he'd balanced the historical sweep with the intimate human stories. But this play, with its tricky shifts of pace and tone, rides him instead of vise-versa. At least McClinton gets fine perfs from the cast, tho' Chris Mulkey's slaveowner is mannered and dull.

Between acts, Brown and McClinton trade a sloppy, episodic verve for a more nuanced realism that's offset by a deflation of energy. It clumsily marks the play's jump from antebellum to post-Reconstruction America. It's too bad: the play's great strength is its vivid evocation of the periods (especially by set designer Joseph Stanley) is what I like most about Pure Confidence. In the middle of a seismic advance in Black American citizenship, Brown's show reminds you that the stakes of history are human beings rather than grand ideals.

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