By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
He was a high rider, a figure carved from the X-large dimensions of Western mythology. A late 19th century Alberta cowboy of extraordinary skill and savvy, capable of startling feats of agility, daring, horsemanship.
What young Cheryl Foggo didn’t realize, growing up, was that John Ware was black.
And as a black kid in the ‘60s in a whitebread Alberta city where cowboy culture lassoed the collective imagination, Foggo says that knowledge “would have made a huge difference to my sense of identity. “The Stampede loomed very large in our world…. Unfortunately I didn’t know there was a cowboy who looked like me….”
That was before the Calgary playwright-to-be began to research black Western Canadian history, before she began to write books on the subject, before she discovered live theatre as a vivid way to tell those stories. John Ware Reimagined, the award-winning 2014 Foggo play that launches Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre’s 39th season Thursday, brings that larger-than-life rancher and his story to life, in a Kevin McKendrick production starring Jesse Lipscombe as Ware and Jameela McNeil as Ware’s wife Mildred Lewis.
And it counterpoints Ware’s story with another, more contemporary perspective, in the fictional character of Joni, much like Foggo herself a black girl growing up in mostly white Calgary in the 1960s, smitten with the cowboy culture but looking in from the outside.
In its original incarnation the play didn’t have a Joni. “I was reluctant to put a character like me in the play…. But the impact of John Ware on my life was interesting to a lot of people,” says Foggo of the play’s evolution from presentation with a narrator to its 2014 premiere by the Ellipsis Tree Collective at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre.
Ware, as Foggo explains, had escaped slavery in the American south — probably South Carolina — to arrive in the southern Alberta foothills in 1882, via the first major cattle drive from Texas.
Foggo herself is descended from black pioneers who’d fled persecution in the U.S., headed north, and arrived in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the Great Migration between 1905 and 1912. “My great grandparents were enslaved in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and they’d gone to the territory of Oklahoma….” At the same time that Oklahoma gained statehood, and lost whatever civil rights advantages it had once held for black people, the Canadian government was advertising in the south, to attract settlers north. Which looked like opportunity, especially at a distance.
Foggo’s Great Uncle Buster ended up in the black community of Amber Valley, north of Edmonton, where Foggo would set her play Heaven; the rest of the family in Saskatchewan.
Foggo had always assumed her ancestors were “among the first black people here. I thought John Ware was a one-off.” The more research she did, the more she realized that however little we Canucks know about our history, we know even less about the black contributions to our heritage. “When my ancestors came, there was already a black community here….” John Ware was not only not the first black settler, he wasn’t the only black cowboy either.
“It was quite common,” says Foggo. “As many as one in four cowboys (here) were of African American descent. The cowboy culture was actually multi-racial…. The Saturday afternoon movies did not include that information,” as she says wryly. “It’s a community grossly under-represented in the public record.”
“I was a history buff before I was a playwright,” says Foggo, currently at work on a National Film Board documentary about John Ware, due for release in 2018. Research about Ware’s life in America before he arrived in Canada at the Bar U Ranch is “extremely difficult,” she says. He has no living descendants to provide the kind of oral history detail Foggo has tapped for her own family history in such books as Pourin’ Down Rain.
“Births and deaths were not even recorded before 1870; slaves were not considered human beings.”
In southern Alberta, though, Ware was a notable figure, getting special mention often in the press of the day, a striking rarity as Foggo points out. There’s a handful of John Ware place names too. Diamond Joe White’s album High Rider is spun from Ware’s story.
Says Foggo, “he was evidently a big, handsome man. A great personality from everything I’ve read — funny, engaging, very skilled socially. Some of it was what he needed to do; some of it was just who he was.”
Ware’s wife Mildred, who came from a leading family in the Toronto black community, was a study in contrast. For starters, she hated horses. As a slave, Ware was not allowed, by law, to learn to read and write. Mildred came from an educated business family; one of her uncles was a lawyer. Where Ware negotiated his way through confrontations with racists, with his friends as a buffer, “Mildred wasn’t willing to accept any guff, any racist language,” says Foggo.
Foggo, who’s married to Calgary-based playwright Clem Martini, has always written in a variety of forms. And John Ware Reimagined isn’t her first play: Turnaround, written for Quest Theatre, chronicles the fortunes of a young girl who takes her mother to court to “divorce” her. But Foggo’s continuing fascination with Ware has sealed the deal. “I always went to a lot of theatre but I was intimidated,” she says. “I saw what Clem went through! But theatre is so alive! So visual! The connection with the audience is so powerful!”
For a writer with an urgent story to tell, and a neglect to redress, that makes it irresistible.
John Ware Reimagined
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Cheryl Foggo
Directed by: Kevin McKendrick
Starring: Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Kristen Alter, Miranda Martini, Kris Demeanor
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Nov. 19
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)