Playing this summer at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, writer Cheryl Foggo's 'Heaven' is the fictional story of a sharp-witted school teacher who comes to Alberta's Amber Valley (near Athabasca) in the 1920s to make a better life for herself. The 'heavenly' settlement, a refuge for Black pioneers fleeing the southern U.S., is but one of the Alberta settings Calgary writer Cheryl Foggo has been using for decades to tell stories about the province's Black people, culture and communities. And though this mainstage presentation of a work Foggo wrote 20 years back would likely be a career high for other writers, for this prolific 64 year-old, it's just the latest creative success in a life of achievements.
"I grew up in Calgary's cowboy and western culture and always loved reading; using my imagination," said Foggo, a 2021 recipient of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Award Foundation's Distinguished Artist Award. Foggo is joined by dance choreographer Vicki Adams Willis and visual artist Faye HeavyShield in an honour that includes a $30,000 award and two-week residency at the Banff Centre's Artist Studios. "I'm grateful for the recognition, and it's an especially sweet feeling to be honoured in your own community."
Albertans may already know Foggo's most famous works to date, those centred around John Ware, Alberta's Black cowboy who helped found the province's ranching industry, irrigation--even the creation of the Calgary Stampede. From the play John Ware: Reimagined to the award-winning NFB feature film John Ware Reclaimed, Foggo has shared not only the iconic Ware's story of coming up from the U.S. on an 1882 cattle drive, she's helped create a more inclusive and diverse view of Alberta's history.
"It's extremely important to me. It's not just an area of great interest; it's a joy and a calling," said Foggo. "And I think telling these stories is more important than ever. I've always had an inherent understanding that our stories were valuable, but sometimes it's just been a matter of luck or finding support to be able to bring these stories to a broader audience. With John Ware, I hope I'm the torchbearer, telling his story in different ways to reach different people. Not everyone who picks up a book goes to see a play or a film."
Though she started out studying journalism at Mount Royal University, Foggo soon switched into taking courses on screenwriting. Through the decades, her varied works have included young adult novels, a children's picture book and her autobiographical book Pourin' Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in The Canadian West. The powerful narrative of Foggo's ancestors' journey from enslavement in the U.S. to western Canada first published in 1990 received a 30th anniversary reprint in 2020.
Having faced 'no' many times in her career, told 'there aren't enough Black people to justify doing the project', Foggo said she feels a duty and privilege to advocate for other Black artists. "I learn so much--it's a two-way thing to work with others, and I love being able to bring forward young Black artists who want to use their voices. I don't feel pressure to do it, it's a joy and honour."
The pandemic didn't slow Foggo down either. She's been editing a film, and continuing to write and research alongside her writer/professor husband. "My husband, kids and grandkids, siblings, extended family--they're my life force," she said.
Most recently, Foggo workshopped a theatre piece with the Urgency Collective in Calgary, and her short play The Sender is currently available through Toronto’s Obsidian Company’s 21 Black Futures Project. And there's another film project, "something inside me, though I'm not ready to say just yet".
"I've been in a state where I wonder 'how do I finish all these things? But there's momentum; a 'more you do, the more you can do' feeling," she laughs. "My work is a wonderful expression of who I am. I'm grateful for it."
Heaven plays at the Citadel Theatre through August 15.