“There are no black cowboys”: Ellipsis Tree Collective Impresses With World Premiere of John Ware Reimagined

For playwright Cheryl Foggo, history is not just about dates and facts. Presented at Lunchbox Theatre, Ellipsis Tree Collective’s John Ware Reimagined is an intelligent drama that offers audiences more than a lesson in Canadian history.

Written by Foggo and directed by Kevin McKendrick, John Ware Reimagined tells the story of Joni (Kirsten Alter), a young African-Canadian girl growing up in 1960s Calgary. Joni’s childhood is defined by her love for all things cowboy, like the Calgary Stampede. But as she grows older and the 60s become fraught with racialized tension, Joni starts to see cowboy culture as something unfamiliar and at odds with her skin colour. In alternate scenes, the play stages John (Orville Cameron) and Mildred (Janelle Cooper) Ware’s life in late 1800s Alberta.

The production is staged in-the-round, meaning that the audience surrounds the actors on all four sides of the stage. This staging grants the actors greater intimacy with the audience as storytellers.

John Ware Reimagined features original music from Kris Demeanor and Miranda Martini. Demeanor and Martini provide live vocals and guitar.

With this play, Foggo critiques the notion that history is disinterested. What does it mean that black cowboys are historically accurate, but are estranged from contemporary cultural knowledge – as evidenced by their lack of representation in popular culture? It means that history is not, in fact, objective, but rather a curated narrative used to validate certain ideas, values, and beliefs.

Joni’s character arc is compelling. The real world and its prejudices matures Joni who is coming of age during the Civil Rights movement.

Alter’s clear and effective body language, which turns from bright and optimistic to worn down and disappointed, demonstrates the fundamental paradigm shift Joni experiences. She succeeds in capturing our attention as both a storyteller and character we care about.

Cameron truly commands the stage as the bigger-than-life cowboy legend. Although, Cameron and Cooper’s chemistry is hit-and-miss. Their respective monologue performances are solid, but something fails to click between them when they are paired together (particularly during the scenes that depict their budding romance).

On that point, the second act feels rushed and messy as though Foggo was unsure how to bring together all the character work and ideas from the past hour and a half. The characters meet, sum up their experiences, and then give us Foggo’s final say in a rather over-sentimental ending. What transpires is a book report ending instead of a satisfying end to an otherwise solid play.

Still, issues aside, John Ware Reimagined is a thought-provoking play, especially following the Calgary Stampede. This play might perhaps encourage audience members to reconsider what they know about both Canadian history and cultural taken-for-granted knowledge. At the very least, Ellipsis Tree Collective’s John Ware Reimagined is an intimate experience with local history that opens the door for discussion.

(This review is based off a preview performance)

Ellipsis Tree Collective’s John Ware Reimagined runs at Lunchbox Theatre from Aug 20-30th.

John Ware Reimagined is the second play in Ellipsis Tree Collective’s Black Canadian Theatre Series.

For more information about the show and how to buy tickets, visit: http://ellipsistree.ca/season/john-ware-reimagined/

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