Pure Confidence: Interesting Historic Play at Mountain View College

“Pure Confidence” is an illuminating play about a little-known era in the history of thoroughbred horse racing in North America. Presented by the African American Repertory Theater in partnership with Mountain View College, Carlyle Brown’s play is directed by Regina Washington and runs through Jan. 27.

Brown is an award-winning playwright, now based in Minneapolis at The Playwright’s Center. He has written numerous works, such as “The African Company Presents Richard III” and “Buffalo Hair,” all of which have received critical acclaim. “Pure Confidence” had a successful run off-Broadway following its opening in the Twin Cities.

Brown’s protagonist, Simon Cato, is based on the earliest American sports heroes: African-American jockeys. For years prior to and following the Civil War, most of the outstanding jockeys in America came from slavery backgrounds. Those slaves entrusted with caring for their master’s horses developed a special bond with the animals, becoming expert riders and trainers. After emancipation, these jockeys continued to dominate race circuits; 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, including the winning jockey Oliver Lewis, were African-Americans.

“Pure Confidence” stars Darren McElroy as Simon Cato and Christian Taylor as Col.  Johnson, the southern plantation owner who introduced Cato to horseracing. The two leads are especially believable in their roles as two men who have a long history of trying to out-negotiate and out-fox the other.

Cato schemes to use his ability to win horse races as a means to buy his freedom, while Col. Johnson isn’t willing to give up the money or prestige earned by his prize-winning rider.

The most poignant relationship, though, is that between Col. Johnson’s wife Mattie (Jo-Jo Steine) and her “girl,” Caroline (who’s also Simon’s true love), played by Raven Lewis. The final scene between the two ladies, who shared a mother/daughter bond, brought tears to my eyes.

It’s strange to see the usually sunny Ken Orman playing such unlikeable characters as Col. Johnson’s horseracing rival in the antebellum south, Mr. DeWitt, and a racist desk clerk in NYC after the Civil War. But Orman made me forget he’s really a nice guy at least until after curtain call. Also featured in the cast is Parker Fitzgerald as an auctioneer and a nosy reporter.

African American Repertory Theater Director Regina Washington has assembled a fine ensemble cast to do justice to Brown’s inspirational and informative play. There is enough humor interspersed with the more serious, dramatic moments in “Pure Confidence” to keep the audience entertained as well as educated.  My fellow history buffs will love seeing a spotlight focused on such a little-known era of American history.

The company has issued a warning that “1860’s language and attitudes are prevalent and expressed from beginning to end. Modern racial sensitivities are not observed in the script.”

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with a 2 p.m. p.m. matinee Saturday in the MVC Performance Hall, 4849 W. Illinois Ave. Tickets are priced from $15 to $27, and are available by calling 972-572-0998 or by email to aartboxoffice@gmail.com. Tickets are also available for online orders by visiting www.aareptheater.net. A budget friendly Thursday show, priced at only $15, will be Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.