by Lynn on September 9, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Sept. 24, 2022.

Written by Cheryl Foggo

Director/musical director, Janelle Cooper

Set and costumes by Lindsey Zess

Lighting by Beth Kates

Sound by Adam Campbell

Original Music, Kris Demeanor and Miranda Martini

Cast: Janelle Cooper

Warona Setshwaelo

Twaine Ward

Musicians: Madeleine Eddy

Graham Hargrove

George Meanwell

A fascinating play and production that explores the vibrant life and historical importance of John Ware, a black cowboy who changed the face of farming and the sense of community when he planted his roots in Alberta in the 1800s.

The Story. John Ware was probably born a slave and became a cowboy driving a herd  of cattle to Canada where he stayed and put down roots. There was a lot of folklore about him doing herculean feats to save people, or invent new ways of farming etc. A lot of it was true. He was a natural leader of people, a loving husband and father. He had tenacity and a sense of duty that was gripping. And he was a hero to those who studied his story.

The Production. Director Janelle Cooper creates a kind of ceremony of introduction at the beginning of the play. Actors in costume are brought forward by another participant and guided around the set and up the stairs. The last to be introduced are two musicians who are also guided. The ceremony was silent.

My concern is that I have no idea who those people are or who is introducing them.  I don’t know who the actors play at this point or the point of the ceremony. I can’t assume I know who those characters are, except for John Ware.  It all comes clear when the play begins. Truth to tell, I think that initial ceremony could be cut with no damage to the production.

Joni (Warona Setshwaela) is our narrator. She gives us context and information about John Ware. Warona Setshwaela as Joni is committed and enthusiastic in her performance. I do wonder who Joni is though because at times she seems to be involved in the story but also just outside of it.

As she initially talks of John Ware, Twaine Ward as John Ware, stands at the back of the stage, posed in his long coat, work pants, shirt and boots. He is imposing with his beard and stillness. He was about 6’2” and so commanding without saying a word. He was a man of few words, so few that when he saw Mildred (Janelle Cooper) across the room, he was smitten with her but could not find the words to tell her. She, a Black woman of the community, gradually, gently got him talking enough that they went on dates and they married. Conversation poured out of him then. They had six children. At one point, Mildred gets sick and John has to travel to Calgary to get the medicine. There was a raging snowstorm. What he had to do to get to Calgary and back, his determination not to stop, is the stuff of legends.

Director Janelle Cooper has directed that scene in particular with vivid imagination, complete with snow whipping in the face of John Ware as he fights the elements to get home and save his wife. There is urgency and the build-up of tension.

As John Ware, Twaine Ward is quiet-spoken because it’s his accomplishments that do the talking. There is power in the gentleness of this imposing man, certainly as played by Twaine Ward.

As an actor, Janelle Cooper as Mildred has that grace and gentle confidence of a woman who could deal with the hard world of farming in the 1800s. She also has that independence that could/would charm John Ware and marry her.  And it was a partnership of equality, devotion and intense love.

Late in the play we learn about Joni. She is the modern Black voice of those John Ware influenced.  She was a Black kid in a predominantly white town who longed to see herself in the books she was reading. In a wonderful speech she notes that she does not see herself in “Little Women” or “Anne of Green Gables or “Harriet the Spy.”

As a youngster, Joni learns about John Ware from her older brother. She also learns about the ‘subtle’ racism of a teacher her brother had. Joni had the same teacher as well. Joni had an assignment to write about Huckleberry Finn. Joni didn’t want to. She wanted to write about John Ware and did. From the questions of the teacher, we could tell that the teacher was giving Joni a hard time, for a kid still in public school. How did she know that John Ware was Black? (Joni just did). How did she know that he did all the things he was supposed to have done. One senses the snotty teacher was not questioning so that Joni would dig deeper. The teacher was questioning to embarrass the kid because at that point in her life, she didn’t know. Joni went on to delve more deeply into John Ware’s life as she got older. Can we assume that Joni is Cheryl Foggo?

Music and songs by Miranda Martini and Kris Demeanor also enrich this production. The songs go deeply into a character’s emotions or forward the story. Often Janelle Cooper and Twaine Ward sing together. Both have beautiful, strong voices.  Madeleine Eddy, Graham Hargrove and George Meanwell provide wonderful musical accompaniment and singing as well.

While I found some glitches in the production, ultimately Janelle Cooper presented a production and direction that realized the rich life of John Ware.

Comment. Bravo to Cheryl Foggo for digging into her and John Ware’s history to create this fascinating play about this compelling man.

Interestingly, had Joni waited about 10 years after the publication of “Harriet The Spy” (Louise Fitzhugh), she could have read Louise Fitzhugh’s last book, “Nobody’s Family is Going to Change”—perhaps my most favourite kid’s book (adult book too?) She would have found people who looked like her. It’s about a Black (upper) middle class family in New York City. The father is a lawyer. The mother is accomplished. There are two children. A young boy about seven and his older sister, about 11. The boy loves to dance. He is the focus of the film, “The Tap Dance Kid”. The sister is smart, solitary and perhaps eats to compensate. She wants to be a lawyer. Her father scoffs. The girls stands her ground. Fabulous book. Joni would have found herself in that wonderful book. Interestingly, Louise Fitzhugh was white, writing about a black family in 1974. No one scoffed.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until: Sept. 24, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx. (1 intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.