Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Cheryl Foggo, a multiple award winning playwright, author and filmmaker, whose work over the last 30 years has focused on the lives of Western Canadians of African descent. Recent works include the release of her NFB feature documentary John Ware Reclaimed, available on nfb.ca, as well as the 30th anniversary edition of her book Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West. Recent journalism can be found on CBC Black on the Prairies and in Westword Magazine. In 2022 and 2023 her plays Heaven and John Ware Reclaimed will receive multiple productions across the country. She recently wrapped shooting of a short film about northern Saskatchewan’s Black History, scheduled to premiere in 2023. Cheryl is the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Outstanding Artist Award, The Doug and Lois Mitchell Outstanding Calgary Artist Award and the Arts, Media and Entertainment Award from the Calgary Black Chambers, all in 2021. She is a 2022 inductee into the Alberta Order of Excellence.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I came to the practice of writing for theatre quite late in my career. Prior to attempting playwriting, I was published as a fiction and non-fiction author, young adult author, journalist and I had written for film and television.
Being married to a playwright (Clem Martini) I was exposed to the evolution of a play from beginning to end, and although often the resulting productions were brilliant, from the outside the process looked both mysterious and fraught to me. In addition, I noticed that a playwright has to have trust in a wide range of people in order for that difficult process to turn into a good production. I think for those reasons I shied away from playwriting.
One New Year’s Eve a number of years ago, I made a resolution that I would say yes to all new opportunities in the upcoming year even if I was intimidated by those offers. It so happened that during that year Johanne Deleeuw at Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary invited me to write a play for their Stage One New Play Development Festival. I honored the promise I had made to myself and my life as a playwright was born.
You have produced many different types of work throughout your career, including films and pieces of journalism as well as plays. How is your approach to playwriting different than other mediums, and how do you decide which method you will use to tell a story?
When writing a play, I start with character first. Even if I have a broad notion of the world in which I want to set my play (for example in the case of Heaven I knew I wanted to set it in Amber Valley), when it comes time to confront the page and start writing, I begin with the who of it. I ask myself what they want. I follow that with imagining them in a situation that puts them under pressure. In some ways, writing a play has far more things to consider than the other forms in which I work, more restrictions, if I may speak honestly. A stage has limited parameters. A production has limited parameters. I do keep all those parameters in mind as I go through the process.
I would say my work in other forms starts with a situation or subject first, rather than a specific character.
As for deciding which medium I will choose to tell a story, I don’t have a clear answer. That’s part of a process that takes place in my brain that I haven’t yet unpacked.
Two of your plays are being produced in 2022 and 2023, Heaven and John Ware Reimagined. Can you tell us about the process of creating those pieces, and why you think they continue to be produced long after their premieres?
I won’t assume that everyone reading this has heard of Amber Valley or of John Ware, so in brief:
Around 1910 there was a migration of approximately 1500 African-Americans to the prairies, most of them landing in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Out of that migration 5 small Black communities were created, including in the Eldon District in Saskatchewan, and in Campsie, AB, Junkins (now Wildwood) AB, Keystone (now Breton) AB, and in Amber Valley, AB, the largest, furthest north and best known of those communities. I am directly descended from the Saskatchewan settlement.
John Ware was a Black cowboy who arrived in southern Alberta Blackfoot Territory in 1882 and lit up the world.
When I was writing and workshopping Heaven, the process included drawing on stories the elders had shared with me and incorporating some of those elements into the imagined situation I was creating for the characters Charlotte and Ezra. I had the opportunity to take the actors to meet some of the descendants of Amber Valley who were living in Calgary. At the same time, I didn’t want to write about a specific person or situation in Amber Valley, I simply wanted to set it there as a way of consecrating a piece of our history.
The play John Ware Reimagined (not to be confused with my NFB documentary, John Ware Reclaimed) started as a Black History Month presentation in 2012. The centennial of the Stampede was being celebrated that year and a friend of mine named Tunde Dawodu suggested I should create something to remind Calgarians of John Ware’s contributions to that cowboy culture. John Ware died in 1905, seven years before the Stampede was birthed, but his influence on western and ranching culture was undeniable. He won the first Calgary Exhibition in 1886. I put together some slides, with commentary on John Ware’s life and the impact he has had on my life. I wrote a couple of scenes between JW and his wife, Mildred Lewis Ware and hired actors Janelle Cooper and Jesse Lipscombe to embody those scenes. I also hired my singer-songwriter daughter Miranda Martini to write a couple of tunes about John and Mildred’s lives. The presentation was well received, which inspired me to write the full length play. Ellipsis Tree Collective Theatre Company and I co-produced it as part of a Black Canadian Theatre Series in 2014. It then went on to a production at Workshop West in 2017.
I think the growing interest in Black Canadian History across the country is partially responsible for renewed interest in these 2 works that are set within that history. Ontarians will have an opportunity to see both pieces soon. JWR is being presented at Blyth in September of this year and Heaven will have a run at the NAC next year.
You were the recipient of the 2021 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award, congratulations! Can you tell us what it meant to you to receive that award?
Thank you. It was gratifying and I felt so honoured. The official celebrations had to be postponed a year because of covid, so they were held just a couple of months ago in Lac La Biche, along with this year’s Emerging Artist Awards. The town threw itself into the events with beautiful enthusiasm and it was fun to share the stage and the honours with my co-recipients, Faye Heavy Shield and Vicki Adams Willis
What advice would you give to your younger self at the start of your career?
My instincts early on were to tell stories about Black Prairie life because those untold stories were the ones that interested me most. I would tell my younger self the same thing I tell younger artists now. Trust your instincts. If you focus on stories and subjects you really care about you will find your way through.
What are you working on now?
I recently shot a short film in northern Saskatchewan about a descendant of the Black migration of 1910, Leander Lane, who tends the 110 year old log church and cemetery that were built by our ancestral community near Maidstone. I’m excited about sharing it with the world next year. I’m also working on a young adult novel set in 1970 with my daughter Miranda and I’m working on a theatre project with a collective of women called “We Seven.”
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
So many. It’s difficult to answer this question without going on forever. In no particular order:
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God — Djanet Sears
A Chitenge Story — Makambe K Simamba
Inner Elder — Michelle Thrush
Another Home Invasion — Joan Macleod
The Real McCoy — Andrew Moodie
When She Was Good — Meredith Taylor-Parry
I also love everything I’ve read by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
It will probably not be surprising to hear that I love Clem’s work. One of his most recent plays, Cantata, is stunning.
Find out more about the upcoming production of John Ware Reimagined at the Blyth Festival in September 2022 here, and follow Cheryl on Twitter, @cdfoggo.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.