Don’t let preconceptions define you: meet the stars of John Ware Reimagined

Jesse Lipscombe in John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

On a cold morning last week before rehearsals started for the day, I met up with Jesse Lipscombe and Jameela McNeil, who play John Ware and his wife in the production of Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined that launches the Workshop West season Thursday.

“My attraction initially was the John Ware mythology,” grins Lipscombe. He’s the multi-talented actor/ film and TV producer/ fitness entrepreneur/ activist — and the exclusive occupant in these parts of that rarified category — who plays the legendary title character in John Ware Reimagined, opening the Workshop West season Thursday at the Backstage Theatre. And why not? “A black superhero? Larger-than-life? A real-life story?” Lipscombe shrugs eloquently.

John Ware was a 19th century cowboy and rancher of epic stature and remarkable natural gifts, who easily fills the expansive Western mystique. By reputation the man never met a horse he couldn’t ride, a calf he couldn’t rope, a ranch he couldn’t run, a racial stereotype he couldn’t effortlessly transcend. 

After that, though, “it was the human aspects of Ware” that has kept Lipscombe fascinated, he says. “He didn’t allow labels to fence him in,” he says of the former slave who escaped oppression in the American south in the 1880s, came to the Canadian west, and built a career of unusual profile and dimensions. “In a world where everything was designed to diminish,” Ware refused to be contained. “And that will resonate with everyone….”

“The only fence in his life Ware accepted was family,” muses Lipscombe, who feels much the same of his own life. “Everything is possible.”

For Jameela McNeil, a recent MacEwan University theatre grad who comes to Workshop West from the Mayfield Theatre production of Soul Sistas, the story has been “a history lesson for me…. There were so many things against him, so many reasons to give up…. It’s a story about the underdog rising to the top. Regular people doing amazing things!”

Lipscombe is entitled to a certain buoyancy of spirit and sense of possibility. It’s been a year of multiple honours, including the Obsidian Award for Top Business Leader in Western Canada. He was Diversity Magazine’s Community Man of the Year, in honour of the year-old #MakeItAwkward campaign he launched with his wife Julia and Mayor Don Iveson to combat racism. The #MakeItAwkward “inclusivity summit” planned for Feb. 1 to 3 (MIAsummit.com) will assemble workshops, panels, speakers — with “disrupters and groundbreakers” in every field from around the world. Two weeks ago Lipscombe was named to Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of metaphors to appreciate that high jump was the athletic specialty that landed the young Lipscombe a full scholarship to Morehouse, the black Ivy League college in Atlanta. He picked Morehouse “because that’s where Martin Luther King went to school”  — and Samuel Jackson and Spike Lee….

Among the year’s firsts for Lipscombe, here’s another. Although the Edmonton kid “grew up on musicals” and landed his first acting gig at 14, in the Sidney Poitier film Children of the Dust shot near Calgary, John Ware Reimagined is, amazingly, Lipscombe’s Edmonton theatre debut. Strange, really, especially when you consider that even in Atlanta, where athletics were his ticket, he was drawn to theatre. “Theatre was huge there in the late ‘90s,” he says of “the olive branch” extended to him out of the sports world.

He wrote, he acted, he directed, he made costumes and worked backstage. And he produced. “I loved it, and I loved the people…. I always thought I’d come back to it.”

A why? question does present itself. The “olive branch didn’t exist here,” he says of his return to Edmonton after college. “I’ve never been onstage in Edmonton theatre in my entire life. This talk of diversity is new,” he says, applauding initiatives by Workshop West (the Black Arts Matter initiative embraced by the company’s Canoe Festival) and the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran (it’s Lipscombe’s photo on the program of Ubuntu, which recently ran on the Citadel’s Maclab stage). “The theatre community didn’t look like my community.”

McNeil muses on the same question, with thoughts on growing up black in an overwhelmingly white world, as she did. “The theatre community is beautiful here,” she says. “But if you don’t ever see yourself onstage you don’t know if you’re invited in.”

Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Jesse Lipscombe in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

McNeil was the only black kid in her high school class and then the theatre program at MacEwan, which parallels the situation of the 1960s character whose reactions to the John Ware mythology are part of Foggo’s play. “I know who I am,” says the engaging McNeil. ”But I noticed being the only one! I’m trying to seek out cultural diverse theatre, theatre that attracts a diverse audience!”

Lipscombe argues that John Ware Reimagined “isn’t so much a black story, it’s an Alberta story.” Which points to our woeful ignorance about our own history, and the lively part in it played by black Albertans — for generations. “I want to take the colour off it.”

“There’s a certain kind of individual who just will not accept restrictions,” Lipscombe smiles. John Ware “was able to continually change: he was a pliable hero. And that gives the story universality,” he thinks. “He understood he had to play the game. And so do most North American black guys: I don’t wear a hoodie at night, for example,” he says, with a shrug, of the accommodations to stereotype he accepts, and those he doesn’t.   

“He knew what he had to do but it didn’t define him.” For Lipscombe these are words to live by.

And McNeil, as a young up-and-comer in the theatre scene, is inspired as well by the way Mildred, John Ware’s feisty wife — who arrived in the Wild West from a much more established black community in Toronto — “held the reins” in social encounters. Mildred certainly made it awkward. “Yes, I’m a young black woman! I’m not going to be confined by societal expectations! John Ware wasn’t going to let his flame be (extinguished),… I just smile when I think of him.” And she does.

Says Lipscombe, “he left everyone and everything better…. That’s an inspiring way to live.”

John Ware Reimagined, directed by Kevin McKendrick, runs at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.) through Nov. 19. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). Meet the playwright Cheryl Foggo at 12thnight.ca.

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