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Pure Confidence: Off to the races

Cliché and insight run neck and neck at Theatrical Outfit

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Theatrical Outfit faces some steep hurdles by staging Pure Confidence. Playwright Carlyle Brown's tale of horse racing and Southern slavery focuses on characters you could best describe as "emblematic." Pure Confidence's main characters are a drawling Southern colonel and an African-American jockey, figures so familiar you can imagine them on fried chicken buckets or, in less politically correct times, on lawns as ornaments.

Early in Pure Confidence's first scene, one plantation owner challenges another to an old-timey duel amid harrumphs over honor, although no actual gloves are slapped. On Theatrical Outfit's website, the playwright acknowledges that he's trafficking in archetypes: "There's something about Southern storytelling which is a little larger than life – I would say exaggerated."

Pure Confidence runs a risk that such heightened, potentially stereotypical storytelling may only revisit well-worn themes and settings, rather than blaze fresh trails. Fortunately the drama relies on well-researched grounding in the fascinating tension between sport, slavery and 19th-century race relations, although some of its conventional plotting and broad characterizations make it stumble.

In Simon Cato (Eugene H. Russell IV), Brown offers a fictional composite of several African-American jockeys who dominated the 19th-century sport, despite being enslaved. Col. Wiley "The Fox" Johnson (James Donadio) has a sweetheart deal hiring out Simon to race his prize-winning mare named Pure Confidence. Perhaps the most striking thing about the roles and the actors playing them is how much Simon and Wiley like each other's rascally qualities and dedication to the game. At times thick as thieves despite their differences in race in the pre-Civil War South, the pair sets up the duel mentioned above as a con (a different kind of confidence game).

The play's first act engagingly shows Simon and Wiley concoct stratagems both with and against each other. In a knotty bit of back story, Simon technically belongs to an estate run by a lawyer. The slave proposes that Wiley purchase him so Simon can run more races and eventually use his "bonuses" to buy his freedom. Wiley's reluctance and Southern law prove no match for Simon's schemes. When Wiley finally agrees to go along with the arrangement, he remarks, with a nod to contemporary audiences, "I'll have my lawyer contact your lawyer."

When Simon and the other characters talk about freedom, the dialogue frequently becomes more stilted and the performances less comfortable. While flirting with Caroline (the dignified Jade Lambert-Smith), housemaid to Wiley's wife, Mattie (Marianne Fraulo), Simon straddles a barrel and provides the play-by-play of an imaginary horse race. He rides "Freedom" against "Slavery," ridden by the Bondage Man, in a verbally dexterous speech that spells out the themes too directly. Russell embodies Simon's passions without quite mastering the play's tonal shifts.

Pure Confidence contains some of the most lighthearted portrayals of slavery you can imagine, and at times that's a strength. When Simon announces his wish to marry Caroline, Wiley quips, "Marry her? God, Simon, I thought you wanted to be free." On opening night, the theater rang with laughter, demonstrating the power of live theater in the South. A play can throw the N-word around and explore the ugliest, most racist aspects of the Southern legacy, but also defuse the tension with a joke that unifies everyone in the playhouse.

Act One ends with the cast delivering a "montage" of speeches on the racing circuit, with Simon winning more prize money and inching ever closer to freedom. At the same time, the Southern states secede one by one, and director Gary Yates sets a pace that conveys how Simon's actually racing against the onset of the Civil War, which could rewrite the rules of an already rigged system.

The play's second half deliberately slows down by leaping forward to 1877 and exploring the Reconstruction Era's disappointments for freed African-Americans. The script relies on the hoary cliché of a reporter (Scott DePoy, appropriately pushy) who stages a reunion and provides lots of exposition about the intervening years. Brown only sketches in some of the intriguing implications about the characters' Civil War experience – although, ironically, you can find a footnote to the period in Theatrical Outfit's lobby, which features some of Michael J. McBride's sprayed-in "giclee" prints from Too Black Too Fast, his art exhibit about the same subject.

Overall, Brown seems so fond of his characters that he's generous to a fault, holding out hope for redemption and reconciliations that seem too good to be true. As Mattie, Fraulo captures that aristocratic Southern blend of sentiment and condescension to "the help," professing to love Caroline without quite treating her like a human being. Fraulo and Donadio charmingly play their roles as comedic scenes, but the play softens some of slavery's horrors.

Pure Confidence makes an intriguing contrast with Blue Door, another African-American drama directed by Yates, at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage through March 16. In Blue Door, Eric J. Little's charged monologues about life during slavery and Jim Crow sounded utterly true, like the unflinching testimony of actual people. Pure Confidence, however lively, feels less direct and more like a feat of dramatic extrapolation, though a clever one. Were the two plays' charged themes and historical authenticity put in competition, I'd lay my money on Blue Door to win, and Pure Confidence to show.

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