Enriching Our History and Our Culture
Reviewed by Vicki Stokes
Two stories intertwine in John Ware Reimagined, premiering in Ontario at the Blyth Festival. One story explores the life of John Ware, an important historical figure in Canada’s history. The other is the story of a young girl who lacks a role model until her discovery of John Ware, then she becomes insatiable in her search for his life story. The play is a fictional tale based on actual occurrences and facts.
If you haven’t heard of John Ware, it is probably because Canadian history isn’t always fair to minorities. Fortunately, Cheryl Foggo became so captivated by this historical figure that she eagerly conducted research, separating legend from fact and adding to the meager literature available in the form of a 1960 book by Dr. Grant Macewan called John Ware’s Cow Country. It is an ongoing research project and labour of love for Foggo. She is adding to our Canadian history while contributing to our Canadian culture with her remarkable play.
John Ware had been made into a legend with exaggerated stories because he was an exceptional and respected rancher, excellent with horses and cattle. A former slave, Ware took part in the first cattle drive from Texas to Calgary in 1882. His story includes his romance with his future wife Mildred, starting his own ranch, and the evolution of their family; it is rich material for a wonderful play. But John Ware Reimagined isn’t John Ware’s story alone. It is a tale of a black girl in western Canada in the 1960s who loves the rodeo and horses and has a tremendous imagination, but she faces racism. Perhaps it is a more subtle form of racism than the American south, but racism all the same. We learn about her family and share certain milestones or turning points in her young life, such as the lack of reaction by her schoolmates to the assassination of Medgar Evers, an American civil rights activist. The Calgary Stampede is an important part of her identity, but ranching history seems to belong to the whites. Despite the fact that historically there were many black cowboys, they aren’t featured in her beloved westerns on television. Once she discovers John Ware, she discovers herself.
Warona Setshwaelo plays Joni, who is Cheryl Foggo’s fictional self, and she speaks directly to the hearts of the audience. She is a brilliant storyteller. Twaine Ward is superb as the strong, determined yet often fun and gentle family man, John Ware. Director Janelle Cooper, stepping in for Germaine Konji, is Mildred Ware, a woman who let her dreams of a career back in Toronto slip away for the love of a great man.
The music is wonderful in this play. Madeleine Eddy winds her way in and out of scenes, in different roles, often with her beautiful melodies and harmonies. Graham Hargrove and George Meanwell add their talents with various instruments including banjo and musical spoons. Original, heartfelt music is featured along with such familiar and fitting tunes as “Don’t Fence Me In”, “The Twist”, and “American Woman”.
The Blyth Festival has chosen well with John Ware Reimagined. I envision it spreading to other theatres in Ontario and beyond. For more information on John Ware and Foggo’s story, see the documentary John Ware Reclaimed on CBC Gem.
As always, I have praise for the enchanting Harvest Stage. It keeps getting better, this time with its added maple trees. There is lighting on the rustic fence by the walkway where you begin your dreamy walk back to the parking lot, accompanied by the bold beautiful moon. If you haven’t been there yet, now is the time to go before the season ends, to catch this wonderful play in the beautiful outdoor setting.
John Ware Reimagined continues at the Blyth Festival until September 24. Tickets are available at 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to https://blythfestival.com/.
Photo: 1. John Ware on a 2012 Canadian postage stamp.
2. George Meanwell, Janelle Cooper, Madeleine Eddy, Twaine Ward, Graham Hargrove, and Warona Setshwaelo. Photo by Terry Manzo.
John Ware Reimagined
By Cheryl Foggo
Direction and Musical Direction by Janelle Cooper
Original Music by Kris Demeanor and Miranda Martini
Performed Janelle Cooper, Madeleine Eddy, Graham Hargrove, George Meanwell, Warona Setshwaelo, Twaine Ward
Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth
September 1 to September 24, 2022
Reviewed by Vicki Stokes