John Ware Reimagined
Runs until Nov. 19
10330 – 84 Ave.
Tickets: $22.50 to $25. Call 780-420-1757 or at http://www.tixonthesquare.ca
Open the pages of sports history and the names of African-American athletes spill out – Jesse Owens, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, Willie Mays, Cullen Jones among many others.
They played different sports and reached their peak in different eras. What they all had in common was a larger-than-life personality and determination to overcome great odds that inspired and influenced peers.
One more name needs to be added to the list. He is John Ware, an illiterate African-American man born into slavery, who achieved near mythical status in the 19th century as a horse trainer and rancher in southern Alberta.
As history recorded, he broke wild broncs that bucked every other cowboy to the ground, and gamely undertook physical challenges that frightened lesser men. Standing shoulders above most people, he eclipsed and outclassed others, not only in height and godly strength, but in his day-to-day treatment of individuals.
Since childhood Calgary playwright Cheryl Foggo, also a horse lover, was fascinated with this beacon of a man. She traced his story and Workshop West opens its 39th season with John Ware Reimagined now running at Backstage Theatre until Saturday, Nov. 19.
In Foggo’s musical drama, she digs deeply into Ware. We learn of the scars on his back from slavery, the taunts men directed at him, and how the cowboy used laconic humour to diffuse potentially toxic situations into easy-going friendships that commanded respect.
But mostly, we learn about his great love for Mildred Lewis, the mother of his six children, and the only woman that tamed him.
Ware’s own respect for horses was intertwined in a basic philosophy. “If you let a horse teach you, you learn everything you need to know,” he said adding that “balance” was his one guide.
In fact, St. Albert born and raised actor Jesse Lipscombe uses “balance” as the essence of John Ware. But unlike actors Sam Elliott and Shaun Johnson’s rugged ranch characters that reek of sweat, hay and horses, Lipscombe’s offering is more polished, playful and utterly charming.
We never really feel the simmering rage John Ware must have felt from the trauma of slavery and local prejudice, but Lipscombe embodies his version with an unexpected sensitivity that leaves you wanting to know more.
Every fibre of my being rooted for Ware whether he discusses horsemanship, tosses men in a river, clams up awkwardly when he meets Mildred Lewis, or travels 18 hours in a blinding blizzard to fetch medicine for his dying wife.
Some of the play’s best scenes are between John and Mildred, two complete opposites. Jameela McNeil’s Mildred is a young black woman who enjoys the luxuries of the affluent middle class. She grew up on Toronto’s bustling King Street, an intersection of the era’s civilized society.
Her family moves to Alberta, but she dreams of returning to Toronto to teach school. Since parents and neighbours encourage Mildred to meet John Ware, she’s determined to dislike the hulk of man too shy to say three words.
The funniest scene is when the duo meets for tea and are at a loss for words. It’s that universal awkwardness that everyone on a date has experienced at one time or another and Lipscombe and McNeil nail it.
“Don’t know why she didn’t jackrabbit away,” John would say after that meeting.
But Mildred is formidable in a feminine way and articulates her thoughts clearly. Although petite in size, McNeil delivers a 19th century feminist, a woman with intelligence and dreams. A woman who can hold her own without drowning in the John Ware myth.
The duo also sings several romantic songs that solidify their feelings, and McNeil, a McEwan Theatre Arts graduate, grabs the spotlight with powerful vocals that soar towards the rafters.
Foggo tells the pioneer story through the lens of Joni (Kirsten Alter), a 1960s young black girl growing up in Calgary’s mainly white culture. Although her world is safe and secure, she searches for black people with the same hair and skin colour, people who share similar experiences.
But they are sparse until she hears of John Ware. In scenes flipping back and forth between past and present, Joni tells us of her life, the one she would like, and how she imagines her hero’s existence played out.
With wide-eyed, captivating energy, she recounts make-believe cowboy games she played with her brother and of the bonds of friendship forged at camp. We learn Joni loses a friend through racism and how the civil rights movement further separates her from peers.
“We were here, but we were never in the books I read,” cries Joni at one point.
At times Foggo’s dialogue comes across as a tad preachy, but by and large Alter takes Joni through the various stages of development revealing a series of emotions and moods from innocent joy to worldly frustration.
Kudos to T. Erin Gruber’s set design, a round, raised set with six radiating ramps that resemble an old wagon wheel with spokes. It gives director Kevin McKendrick plenty of room to manoeuvre actors while representing both past and present western culture.
Thursday night’s Edmonton debut attracted a sellout crowd of fresh faces eager to learn about a new Canadian myth-maker and the playwright’s journey of self-discovery. Slim Pickens was the first black American cowboy star. John Ware Reimagined is the first step in elevating Canada’s black cowboy culture to stellar heights.
Workshop West also presents a series of engaging discussions on topics raised within the play. Have You Herd explores John Ware’s influence on modern ranching Wednesday, Nov. 15 at noon.
We Remember Amber Valley on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. honours the stories and resilience of the historical black community, and Ware Is The Legend (?) Saturday, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. attempts to demystify Alberta’s legendary cowboy.