Before I wrote John Ware Reimagined as a play, it was a presentation/staged reading that toured around small communities with connections to the Ware family in southern Alberta. I witnessed how much cultural and racial diversity has increased in those communities since I was a kid, because People of Colour who were employed at places like the JBS meat packing plant near Brooks attended the presentations in large numbers. Those shows were among the most powerful experiences of my life as an artist. One effusive woman who I believe was originally from Vietnam was disappointed to learn we didn’t have a copy of the music from the piece available for her to purchase and take home. She begged us to make a recording immediately, before the summer ended. “I need that,” she said. We chuckled, she bristled. “You don’t understand!” she said. “I need it! I need to sit on my deck in the evening and listen to this music and remember this night.” Her name has disappeared from my memory, but her face has not. Recalling her is one of the more pleasant distractions available to me right now.
I can normally focus when I’m writing. I can lower myself into the ocean of my project and swim underwater for hours. I don’t need air; I don’t need food. I have wished, in the past, that I could apply that skill to the rest of my life. I’ve never been very good at living in the moment, except when I’m writing. During yoga, my thoughts dart around colourfully, like the fish in my ocean. I panic and try to chivvy myself back into just breathing and being, but that only makes the fish more distracting.
I can report, though, that the pandemic has finally brought me to a place of understanding what living in the moment means. For weeks upon weeks I’ve had nowhere else to be except in the moment and place where I am. That hasn’t turned out to be as satisfying as I always envisioned. I thought I would be in moments of my own design. Instead, I am compelled to stay in moments where I don’t want to be.
Every day I wake up to a new horror that has cut down a person who looks like my relatives, or like the woman who needed to listen to the music from John Ware Reimagined on her deck in Brooks.
Black people are being murdered by police or citizen racists. Folks who either are Chinese, or who are just assumed to be Chinese are being beaten up and spat upon. Indigenous men in northern Alberta are murdered while in the act of hunting for food to share with their community suffering through a plague. A Vietnamese woman who was employed in a meat packing plant is dead because our government refused to shut the plant down, even though the terrified workers had been saying for weeks that they weren’t safe. Racial violence isn’t new, we’re all just bearing witness to it more often.
I see artists everywhere in the province uniting in support and survival initiatives. We know our labours give people life. We are aware of our huge contribution to the economy and quality of life in this place. I think artists also understand, better than almost any other sector, that we are in transition and the next few years will be difficult beyond anything most Albertans have endured within our lifetimes.
At the same time, artists are also probably the best problem solvers and the most hopeful of sectors. The world sometimes thinks of us as a sad and anxious lot, and sure, we get discouraged and disheartened. But in general? Artists have the problem of staying positive whipped. You wouldn’t stick with it for more than a year, you wouldn’t stay in Alberta if you lacked the ability to remain optimistic. What do we do when writing a play turns terrifying or funding gets pulled? We vow we’ll never do this to ourselves again, that we’ll finish this one because the actors and director are waiting for the script, but that’s it. Then we get into the rehearsal hall and everything turns beautiful or it goes horribly awry. Regardless, what do we do next? We write another thing. We keep working. Despite the obstacles we face as artists in Alberta (see Matt Wolf’s twitter mockery of Rachel Notley’s suggestion that an artist be appointed to the economic recovery panel. See also the sucker-punch to artists who honoured the March application deadline to AFA) do we carry on because we’re fools? No, we carry on because of people we meet who really needed what we brought to town. Art transfuses and inoculates. Our offerings build the world up.
Still, we have much to do to address racism in the arts here in Alberta. Racism manifests in multiple ways in the creative industries, sometimes overt, other times “invisible” in the way that systemic disadvantage is invisible unless you’re the people on the receiving end of it. I’ve been in situations working with multi-race casts where the lighting techs didn’t have the capacity and equipment to properly light dark-skinned actors. That’s not because the techs were malicious or hateful. That’s because of multiple layers of systemic racism. Maybe it never came up during their training. Maybe the theatre didn’t bother buying the right gels. Maybe throughout their career they’ve never been on a crew where they had to light dark skin.
Having to confront direct or passive aggressive racism in situations where all we actually want is to focus on our craft is tiring. It’s tiring in a different way from the weariness inflicted by waking up every day to a new horror, but it’s all from the same root. The cumulative effect is crushing.
I wonder if the meat packing plant workers I met on that warm fragrant night in Duchess, Alberta are dead because we didn’t value their lives. I dread more deaths to come because of hate. I don’t want the world to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t and isn’t working for many.
Cheryl Foggo is a multiple award winning author, playwright and filmmaker, whose work focusses on the lives of Western Canadians of African descent. Her play, John Ware Reimagined, won the 2015 Gwen Pharis Ringwood Award.