Reimagining our own lost history: John Ware Reimagined at Workshop West, a review

Jesse Lipscombe, John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

John Ware could do many things in life. He could ride horses too wild for any other man. He could wrestle any rampaging steer into submission, organize a cattle drive, run a ranch, walk through a prairie blizzard for a hundred miles when the train ground to a halt. He could stay put in the saddle when his mount galloped off a cliff and into a river, and emerge, like Neptune, triumphant from the water.

There was one thing John Ware couldn’t do, in life or in death. He couldn’t gain a foothold in Alberta history and lore that would propel him out of the 19th century and into our own. It’s a tricky thing to stride through the story of a place, much less its cowboy mythology, if you leave no footprint.

John Ware was black. And as you’ll see in the play by Calgary’s Cheryl Foggo that launches the new Workshop West Playwrights Theatre season, colour has been a cloak of invisibility in a world of white stories and white storytellers. Even if you’re wearing a cowboy hat.

Hence this ambitious and important, if uneasily structured, show.

The imagining in Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined is done by a young girl growing up black in an overwhelmingly white ‘60s Calgary embedded with Stampede iconography. Joni (Kristen Alter) is besotted with the Stampede and cowboy pop culture — “my Stampede rituals are solid!” — and with the kind of against-the-odds Western heroism in which she will always be a spectator, not a participant.

Through a series of extended monologues directed our way, Alter’s high-spirited performance, with its bright effervescent kid energy, exudes something of the generosity this requires. And she captures too, the coming-of-age awareness of the toll it takes to never see anything of yourself in the world you most admire. 

Joni is dumbfounded when she discovers that John Ware had the same skin tone and hair texture as her own. “He was smart, he was funny, he hated fences” — and he was, what?, black? This discovery changes her life and a world view that is gradually getting frayed around the edges by casual racism. 

Running parallel to this, and kind of embedded in it, is the fascinating story of John Ware himself, a former slave who, on the strength of a magnetic personality, unusual stature and improbable skills, could straddle the chasm between one era and a new, well newer, age.

The old Cole Porter ditty Don’t Fence Me In, played by the musical team of Miranda Martini and Kris Demeanor who drift on and off the stage, filters through our introduction to him, like smoke. 

In a way the John Ware story is itself all about stage presence, uncontainable amounts of it. In this Kevin McKendrick’s production has the considerable advantage of Jesse Lipscombe. He’s an actor of captivating personal charisma. And he uses his physical eloquence and stature in a compelling way, to create a wry, self-aware character who’s easily self-assured in his professional “cowboy” life, so to speak, and sweetly diffident in his domestic life.

In one amusing scene, Lipscombe, a find for Edmonton theatre, conjures single-handedly Ware’s fight with a bunch of white cowboys who have stolen his axe — a fight he astutely contrives to both win and not win. Ware is evidently savvy about negotiating his way through the racial minefield of his world.  You can’t help wishing for more scenes that reveal the unusual mixture of resistance and compliance that Ware brought to bear on his situation.  

Jesse Lipscombe, Jameela McNeil, Kirsten Alter in John Ware Reimagined, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Epic Photography.

There’s a love story here, as Ware courts and marries Mildred (Jameela McNeil). They’re a high-contrast couple: she comes from a well-established Toronto business family and arrives in the harsh wide-open expanses of  the West like an interplanetary traveller, wearing gloves. McNeil is an appealing actor. But the scenes in which Mildred confronts the world seem less fleshed-out and more generic somehow.

The 19th century scenes are happening in Joni’s mind, you glean — except when the 19th century characters seem to step out to address us directly. Gradually, the parallel time lines of Joni and the Wares converge, as Joni is drawn into their world, during a life-and-death blizzard.

It’s a structure that is potentially powerful, but isn’t quite set forth enough to have the impact it should. And it seems to leave the original music awkwardly stranded, or at least without much traction. Which is a shame since there’a a quantity of it, and the songs created by Martini and Demeanor are tuneful, atmospheric and appealing in lyrics. Even Joni gets one, for dramatic reasons that seem less than convincing so far.

Jesse Lipscombe and Kirsten Alter, in John Ware Reimagined. Photo by Epic Photography.

Ah, so far. What’s clear already is that there’s a powerful and persuasive reason for the creation (and production) of this play; it speaks from the heart, and you can’t help but be struck by that. But John Ware Reimagined seems to need a re-jigging to come fully into its own as a play with music.

The design by T. Erin Gruber (who also lights it beautifully) is strikingly Western: a raised circular wooden disk with a half dozen ramps leading away from it like spokes. But the staging involves quite a lot of noticeable shifting of chairs and trunks off and on and around the circular playing space. There’s a homespun quality to this, true. But it just doesn’t seem necessary. And I  wonder if a more fluid and mysterious co-existence of the two storylines in two time zones, would focus this double-optic about identity and our lost black history.

Here’s a story that needs to be told and to be heard — and a play that might be reimagined to have its full impact. 

REVIEW

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: through Nov. 19

Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)

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