PLAYWRIGHT CHERYL FOGGO ON JOHN WARE, CANADA’S MOST FAMOUS COWBOY, AN AFRICAN-CANADIAN LEGEND WHOSE EXISTENCE CHALLENGES THE BACK-PATTING CANADIAN MYTH OF BENEFICENCE (MF GALAXY 111)
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John Ware is the greatest Canadian legend you probably have never heard of. He was a 19th Century West African born into the American continent-wide rape-gulag that apologists call the Old South. He went on to become one of thousands of African-American cowboys, and he eventually moved to what is now Alberta to become a master bronco-buster, successful rancher, a founder of modern rodeo culture, and a man of near mythic proportions with the strength of Paul Bunyan and the power of a horse whisperer.
Ware earned the admiration of many of his fellow settlers on First Nations territory, although many Euro-Canadians called him, and please excuse the language, “Nigger John,” and after he died, used the N-word to describe Alberta landmarks associated with John Ware, names that remained until late in the 20th Century. His reconstructed cabin still exists—you can find it in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
While a few people have written books about John Ware, it’s possible that no one has done more original research than celebrated Alberta journalist, essayist, YA novelist, and playwright Cheryl Foggo. She’s written for Canadian Magazine, Reader’s Digest.ca, Avenue, AlbertaViews, Western Living, Sunday Magazine, and The Globe and Mail, among many others.
Foggo's play John Ware Reimagined premiered in Calgary in August, 2014, and the script won the Writers Guild of Alberta 2015 Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award for Drama. She’s currently developing a John Ware documentary with the National Film Board of Canada. Her many other projects include adapting Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart, and Hiding Place, a history of African settlements in southern Alberta. Foggo also makes acclaimed multi-media presentations across Alberta, including Ranchers, Rebels and the Righteous, Creole, and Unlocking Sacred Codes.
In today’s episode of MF GALAXY, Cheryl Foggo discusses:
- How learning that John Ware was an African-Canadian changed her life
- Mildred Lewis, who became John Ware’s wife, and the remarkably accomplished Lewis family from Ontario
- How John Ware’s story defies the myths of Canadian beneficence and Euro-Canadian settler identity
- How Cheryl Foggo has changed her playwriting craft over her career
- How her experience as researcher, journalist, and historian affects how she constructs characters, and
- Why poets often make the best playwrights
We spoke on February 14, 2017 at the Old Arts Barns in Strathcona, Edmonton, when she was in town to conduct a playwriting workshop. She began by discussing how when she was a girl she was a cowboy culture nerd. Please note that for the sake of historical clarity, I’ve left the use of the N-word in today’s podcast.
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