John Ware Reimagined: a legendary horseman and cattle rancher people need to meet

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PREVIEW
John Ware Reimagined
Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre
Nov. 8 to 19
At Backstage Theatre
10330 – 84 Ave.
Tickets: $24.50 to $27.50. Call 780-420-1757 or at http://www.tixonthesquare.ca

Mention the name John Ware in Edmonton and there is a 99 per cent chance you will receive a questioning stare. Who?

Down in southern Alberta, Ware is a legend who lived during the golden age of frontier ranching. There are stories told about his bulletproof status: that he walked over the backs of penned steers, and could stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground. Or that he could break the wildest broncos, and trip a horse by hand and hold it on its back to be shod.

In height John Ware towered above men and he was bestowed with an impressive physical strength. But from the fragments of information about him, it’s hard to separate fact from tales spun around wood-burning stoves during cold winter months.

Yes, he was a legendary horseman and cattle rancher in pioneer times. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that he was an African-American who achieved iconic status in the white European dominated prairies.

Despite the respect paid to him as a cowboy, this was a racially charged society where even friends and neighbours called him “N–er John,” a term that we today would call ignorant and derogatory. Living with racism, he always straddled that fine line with patience and courage.

“He really impressed people right from the beginning. He faced racism, but in addition to being a born leader, he had an incredible desire to be the architect of his own fate,” said Cheryl Foggo.

The Calgary playwright became fascinated with this early trailblazer and how his life story intersected with hers.  Foggo’s play John Ware Reimagined, produced by Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre receives its Edmonton premiere at Backstage Theatre from Nov. 8 to 19.

A horse-crazy young girl, Foggo, who is of African-American descent, heard his name at an early age. Although she knew John Ware School existed and the Calgary Stampede celebrated him, she was unaware her idol was black.

“I was fascinated by cowboy culture, but the popular depictions were very white. My brother and I used to play cowboys, but as we became older we were uncomfortable with the western cowboy identity. We eventually pushed it aside. We saw no reflection of ourselves. It was an absence of his story combined with an absence of our story that pushed me to write the play.”

In Foggo’s play, the character Joni is a narrator and is based on the playwright’s life and experiences. Through Joni, Foggo visualizes the rancher’s life and the impact he had on her.

Born to slavery on a cotton plantation in South Carolina around 1845, John gained his freedom after the American Civil War ended in 1865. He drifted west to Texas finding ranch work in Fort Worth.

An experienced ranch hand, he moved cattle north. In 1882 he joined a 3,000 head cattle drive to southern Alberta’s Bar U Ranch, later one of his work sites. Ware married Mildred Lewis, an affluent young woman who had moved west and together they had five children.

Former St. Albert resident Jesse Lipscombe landed the starring role of this complex man.

“John Ware has become a part of me. It’s my favourite role. He was a big guy with the territory of being a big, black man. He was very gregarious, good with people and truly loved his wife. He had a small circle of friends and was very loyal to them. And he always left a great impression with whoever he met.”

A champion of education, Lipscombe believes the play fits a wide audience.

“It’s nice to learn about your history. This story needs to be told. It will change your perspective. It will change you.”

 

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About Author

Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.