Filmmaker Cheryl Foggo continues her efforts to reclaim the legacy of cowboy legend John Ware

Growing up on the prairies, there were a few different ways to be introduced to the tale of cowboy John Ware.

One is the 1960 tome by Dr. Grant MacEwan, John Ware’s Cow Country, which helped build the legend of the former American slave turned southern Alberta settler and pioneering rancher — but it comes with something of a take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt warning. 

Another, and my entry-point at the age of 11 and a big brother’s cassette tape, was the wonderful Diamond Joe White song and album High Rider in 1981, the gravel-road-throated country vocalist helping to mythologize the cowboy but in a somewhat less problematic way.

“I think that song is a lot of people’s entry point into the John Ware story,” says award-winning local playwright, novelist and filmmaker Cheryl Foggo, “so good for Diamond Joe White.”

For Foggo, though, it was perhaps how most in this part of the prairies enter into the world of Ware, as well the added gravitas of growing up a person of colour in rural Alberta,

“My brother and I became aware of it at the same time and we can’t pinpoint the date,” the artist says over the phone to promote her new documentary John Ware Reclaimed, “but we were young as well, about (11 or 12), and it was connected to my brother going to the Glenbow Museum and at that time they had a display up about John Ware. 

She continues. “We were cowboy and cowgirl people. It’s complicated because we had heard the ‘Ware’ name, John Ware’s children were elders in our community, so we had even heard the name ‘John Ware,’ we just didn’t make the connection that he was a Black cowboy.”

Once she did, though, it began a journey that she is now about two thirds of the way through with the completion of Reclaimed, which she’ll celebrate the world premiere of Sept. 24 at Eau Claire Cinemas as part of the opening night of the 2020 Calgary International Film Festival, with another screening to close the fest Oct. 4 at the Globe. The film will also be available for at-home streaming throughout.

It’s the second entry into a trilogy that began with her 2014 play John Ware Reimagined and will conclude some time in the near future with the publishing of her book, which has the working title John Ware Reframed

“So not quite the end of the journey,” she says on this day when her world premiere was announced and the film’s completion days away.

She remembers her first real steps in that journey began when she was in her 20s and wanting to write about southern Alberta’s woefully undertold Black history.

“I guess you could say that’s when it became something of a passion,” Foggo says of when she first started truly digging into Ware’s life in earnest. “I didn’t really do anything with the information I was collecting until 2012, when the Stampede was having their 100th.”

And, yes, while Ware predates the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, he died in 1905 at the age of 60, Foggo was encouraged by Afrikadey! organizer Tunde Dawodu to not let the legend be, well, white-washed from Stampede history.

“He was so integral to all of the things about Calgary and southern Alberta that led to the creation of the Stampede, so that’s how it evolved,” she says explaining Part 1 of the three-parter.

Pushing that evolution further was Foggo’s initial attraction to the cowboy mystique and mythology, in general, before it then became something of a more personal connection, which helps shape the film that features dramatic portrayals of Ware by noted rodeo star Fred Whitfield as well as her archival discoveries and how they affected her, changed her perception of him and herself.

“That was very important to my identity and my being able to relax into and connect and feel proud of the connection between myself as a person from western Canada — born and raised — but also myself as a person of Africa, of African descent.

“I think there’s just a willingness to go the extra mile, go the extra 20 miles when it’s a story of such personal significance. Because our history has been … erased, it was very important for me to reclaim the story …

“Doing research about people of African descent in North America who are the descendants of enslavement is very challenging, so there just isn’t the same willingness on the part of someone who doesn’t care about that story from the inside out. That’s my story, too. My ancestors were enslaved just as just as John Ware was and his ancestors. I do think it’s important for Black people to tell Black stories, for sure.”

Which she thinks is what gives her something of an obvious advantage over MacEwan and his book, puts her above the fallacies it perpetuated, Ware being portrayed as “larger than life in a not positive way.”

As to exactly what’s true and what’s false, the things she discovered before the filming and helped shape what John Ware Reclaimed ultimately is, Foggo merely laughs.

“That’s a spoiler,” she says.

And the biggest surprise discovery about the real John Ware?

She laughs again. “That’s a spoiler, too. Sorry, Mike.”

Spoilers aside, Reclaimed is certain to enter the John Ware artistic canon as the go-to source, although, obviously there’s still room for good ol’ Diamond Joe’s High Rider.

It, sadly, doesn’t make the film, but music is an integral part of it, with songs and poetry by prairie folk such as Kris Demeanor, Ruthie Foster, Corb Lund — whose relatives were neighbours of Ware — as well as Foggo’s daughter Miranda Martini, who composed a lot of music for the play, and actor Janelle Cooper, also a large part of the initial theatrical production.

“She’s been along on my John Ware journey for a long time.”

Spoiler alert: One that’s almost, not quite, over.