Workshop West tells immortal story of cowboy ahead of his time
John Ware arrived in the ranch country of southern Alberta on a fall day in 1882. No one knows why he decided upon the weather-vulnerable foothills, but the tough old bird ranched cattle there until the day he died.
His story has gripped many over the years, including playwright Cheryl Foggo, who wrote John Ware Reimagined, a play she calls “a love story within a love story” for her own love of the man’s recondite but stunning story.
Workshop West opens their season with Foggo’s play that often uses music to tell John Ware’s story, through the eyes of Joni (Kirsten Alter). A woman from present day, Joni fixates on each morsel of information she digs up about Ware as she makes sense of her own barriers growing up in the Canadian ‘60s.
Jesse Lipscombe, who plays John Ware, can identify with many of the feelings Ware may have had about being unwillfully put in boxes as a black man with a large presence—Lipscombe is 6’3 and 270 pounds himself.
“There is something that goes with the size of a black man and people’s opinion of that when they don’t know you,” Lipscombe says. “But on a more human level, he hated fences, and that idea of hating fences had more to do with starting as a slave and rules, and people telling him what to do.”
Ware’s legacy outlasts even his own tough-as-nails grit. He’s a cowboy in the truest sense of the word, and the stories about him regularly blur the lines of what you thought were truth and fiction.
John Ware came from the southern States, still ripe with rights violations after emancipation, to western Canada for freedom and a chance at a life he chose for himself—something that was not uncommon at the time.
Amber Valley, a settlement about 170 kilometres north of Edmonton was settled in 1910 and 1911 by a wave of African-Americans from Oklahoma looking for the same freedom. At the time, Canada was waving its hands for hardy farmers to settle the west, offering land for cheap. The result was roughly 300 black Oklahomans settling the area; 300 people that thousands of Albertans can now trace their family history to, including Foggo, Lipscombe and musician Miranda Martini, who wrote a large chunk of the music for the play.
Although Ware died in 1905 and was not a part of the Amber Valley settlements, his legacy remains strong. Lipscombe mentions that one of Ware’s children married a Lipscombe, taking the actor-character connection to whole new level.
“The fact is: one in four cowboys were black after the emancipation proclamation,” Lipscombe says. “It was one of the jobs that you did if you could do that type of work. Blacks were the very first cowboys that existed. And I say that because the term ‘cowboy’ was a derogatory term for black people; if you were white, you were a ranch hand or a cowpunch.”
And John Ware was one of the best.
“He brought irrigation to Alberta,” Lipscombe adds; “he brought longhorn cattle; he was a genius with herding animals and taking care of animals and could ride better than most people and was just a gregarious, great human being that left everyone a little bit better after he had met them.”
Lipscombe mirrors Ware in more ways than just appearance and family history; the campaign he and his wife started, “Make it Awkward” embodies much of what Ware stood for, including freedom, respect, and love.
“This is a great tool to continue that same conversation,” he says of his part in the play, adding that he’s always surprised how many avenues can be used to continue the conversation.
Workshop West will also hold conversations following a few shows to cover important topics like sharing stories of resilience in Amber Valley.
Thu., Nov. 9 to Sun., Nov. 19 (7:30 pm)
John Ware Reimagined
ATB Financial Arts Barns – Backstage Theatre