PLAY REVIEW: Blyth Festival Theatre’s ‘John Ware Reimagined’ is a western rollercoaster on stage

The first scene of Blyth Festival Theatre’s rendition of John Ware Reimagined was uncomfortable to say the least, however, the show continued with cultural highs and lows, each sharing an important lesson in diversity and equality.

The first scene is a racist encounter between a stranger and the main character Joni, in the present day, before the audience is transported back in time, not only in Joni’s life but also in history during the settling of the Canadian west.

For many reasons, this show is a rollercoaster, as the story jumps half a century, ranging from the early 1900s all the way to the 1960s and 70s. The story also switches between two memoirs detailing the lives of Joni and Canadian cowboy John Ware.

Joni is an African-Canadian girl who grew up in Alberta. I get the feeling that this character is based on the playwright Cheryl Foggo’s childhood. The show details her lifelong infatuation with cowboy culture, as well as her personal encounters with racism.

John Ware is relatively unknown, considering he was the fastest cowboy of his time in Alberta; he pioneered irrigation in the western Canadian province, and; he has several landmarks named after him, as well as a Canada Post stamp.

Ware was the first black role model that Joni could connect with in all the stories she read as a child.

The playwright stated that she wants the audience to know that Ware’s story was extremely influential in her life, however, was not available to her as a young child. Thus her purpose for writing this play was to share his story, not just the cowboy legends that muddy the facts about this man. She stated in a CBC film that she wanted to share his story in a way that she believed he would have wanted it to be shared.

Foggo’s play is a rollercoaster of emotions, childhood memories (both happy and sad), as well as moments from little-known history.

The stories divided by half a century include pivotal moments in Ware’s life, like when his home was swept away by a flood thus forcing him to move his family in 1902; but also moments in more recent history, for example, the day African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated.

This specific moment in the show sets the tone for the rest of this turbulent story.

For every high in this story, there is a low that teaches a lesson about equality for all.

A devastating low never fails to quickly follow each happy high in this story. Each high seems to be one step towards the main characters finding their personal form of happiness, while the negative lows seem to take the characters two steps backward.

Prospective audience members will be happy to know that this story ends on a high note.

It is this writer’s opinion that this play has the potential to strike up important conversations about race and privilege, while also questioning how our nation showcases its own history. And for that reason alone, I don’t believe there is a single person who should not see this film – regardless of if these topics make you feel uncomfortable.

After seeing this show, I am convinced that John Ware was an extremely important figure in the settling of Alberta and I only just learned his name. Yet he was only named a Figure of National Historic Importance this year, on June 6, 2022, by Canadian Heritage – 117 years after his death.

The phrase “too little, too late” comes to my critical-thinking mind first, however, this honour does have an important part to play in sharing this incredible man’s story, as well as Canada’s rich multicultural history that is often overlooked.

John Ware Reimagined has show dates on the Harvest Stage until Sept. 24. Tickets are available online at blythfestival.com.

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Kelsey Bent is a journalism with Midwestern Newspapers. She can be reached by emailing kbent@midwesternnewspapers.com.

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