1. You’ll learn a lot about John Ware.
Born into slavery, John Ware became a famous and respected cowboy in the Calgary area at the turn of the century. He became a successful rancher and was the first in the area to own a dipping vat for treating mange. Although he has been included in history books and the Glenbow Museums Mavericks exhibit, his story is still not that well known.
“John Ware’s story is highly mythologized,” says playwright Cheryl Foggo. “There are stories that have a kernel of truth that are then turned into Paul Bunyan-esque myths.” And while Foggo’s account in John Ware Reimagined isn’t a historical or journalistic recounting of Ware’s story, she has taken great pains to try to accurately portray him. “I wouldn’t want people to think everything I have written is historically accurate, but I would like to de-mythologize the stories.”
2. You’ll learn a lot about Cheryl Foggo.
Foggo is a local writer and this piece is deeply personal. One of the characters, Joni finds her own identity as a Black Canadian through her understanding of John Ware, just as Foggo did. “[John Ware] was so important in my development of my identity. I grew to love him,” says Foggo.
3. Before Foggo started working on this project, it had been 14 years since a Black Canadian play had been staged in Calgary.
Black Canadian identity, especially in stories of pioneering on the prairies, is a missing narrative. “When I was growing up I very much felt the absence of that story in the local and national narrative,” says Foggo. “And it continues to be a missing narrative. Telling these stories helps Canadians understand that diversity has been part of our narrative from the beginning.” For Foggo, whose family has been in Alberta for many generations, it’s a mistake she has experienced people making over and over. “People didn’t believe my family was from here,” she says, noting that on the flip side, people assume her husband who is white, has longer family roots here when in fact his parents were immigrants. Telling these stories helps to fill in those gaps in our understanding of what it means to be Canadian and Albertan.
4. It’s the second of three plays in Ellipsis Tree’s Black Canadian Theatre series.
The first of its kind in Alberta, this project by Ellipsis Tree to produce Black Canadian works is something the company describes as a legacy project. For Foggo, it’s also about building a community to share local stories.
“I’d been writing plays for a few years and I noticed that the young black talent coming out of the arts programs weren’t sticking around because they didn’t get enough work,” says Foggo. “So that was part of the reason to create this series. And part of it was knowing how important it is for young people to see themselves reflected in the culture around them.”
5. You get to witness work in progress.
While the play is definitely a finished work – audiences won’t be sitting in on a workshop – it is part of Foggo’s continuing exploration of John Ware’s story. The play developed from a presentation Foggo created to coincide with the 100th anniversary celebrations for the Stampede. “We wanted to make sure John Ware wasn’t forgotten during that celebration,” says Foggo. That presentation was a 50 minute talk, with slide show with a musician and two actors who portrayed John and Mildred Ware. Now the play includes two musicians – Foggo’s daughter Miranda Martini, and Kris Demeanor – and three actors (Orville Cameron, Janelle Cooper and Kirsten Alter).
Foggo is also working on a historical documentary for the National Film Board about Ware, which she hopes to finish shooting by fall of 2015. “I learn something new about John Ware every week,” says Foggo. “The end of this play is not the end of my journey with John Ware.”
John Ware Reimagined opens August 22nd. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. with a Sunday matinee on August 24th (there are no shows on August 25 or 26). Tickets are available through ellipsistree.ca