“Story is something I believe is instinctive. It is in our blueprint, in our DNA, as human beings. We also learn it by osmosis, because we grow up with story all around us. For those of us who choose storytelling as a vocation, I believe our role is to help people make sense of the world and to feel connected to one another. I believe story is the best way to bring change, as well.”
Cheryl Foggo of Calgary is an award-winning Canadian storyteller. She embraces various forms of narrative – journalism, books, film, television and theatre – to tell compelling stories of Alberta’s Black pioneers. By shining a light on the Prairies’ rich and diverse Black history, she helps us understand the relevance of this history to our lives, and the significance of contributions by Black people to Canada.
Cheryl Dawn Foggo was born in 1956 in Calgary and raised in Bowness. Her father Roy was a mailman and her mother Pauline worked for the Calgary Board of Education as a library assistant. Cheryl is a descendant of the Black Migration of 1910, when approximately 1,500 African Americans fled hatred in the southern United States. Both sets of her maternal great grandparents joined that migration, travelling from Oklahoma to settle near Maidstone, Saskatchewan.
The third of six children, Cheryl grew up among a family of storytellers. She loved watching her mom’s siblings tell stories about their early lives in Western Canada. “It was like a show. You’d sit around the living room and one of them would act out all the parts,” she says. Cheryl hoped she would become a storyteller, too.
While she aspired to become a writer, her hopes seemed unrealistic. “I certainly didn’t know anybody who was a writer. That changed when I met Clem [Martini] in Grade 7. He not only shared my aspiration, but also believed it was possible,” she says. Whether riding bikes or bonding over their dreams of writing, the two would become lifelong best friends.
After graduating from Bowness High School, Cheryl worked as a dental assistant for 10 years, while writing freelance articles for newspapers and magazines on the side. Her first published piece was an article about Calgary’s Black community. While some publications shied away from discussions of race, Calgary Magazine’s editor Penny Williams welcomed the story. Cheryl went on to publish prose in more than 40 journals and anthologies.
In 1984, best friends Cheryl and Clem, now a playwright, were married and had two daughters, Chandra and Miranda.
When Cheryl began writing a book of her own, she committed to writing full time. Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West tells the powerful story of her ancestors’ journey from enslavement in the United States to the life they built in Western Canada. Published in 1990, the autobiography traces five generations of her family and talks about growing up Black on the Canadian Prairies in the warm embrace of a community of extended family and friends. Pourin’ Down Rain became a finalist for the Alberta Culture Non-Fiction Award in 1991.
Cheryl’s sophomore book in 1997 proved even more successful. Her young adult novel One Thing That’s True was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. “It’s a story with a Black girl as the protagonist. There was nothing like that for me when I was young, so I was inspired to write a book for kids out there like me,” she says. Cheryl’s other books for young people – I Have Been in Danger and Dear Baobab – offer positive representations of Black and mixed-race childhoods.
Cheryl’s goal with her writing throughout her career has been to shine a light on Black presence, stories and contributions so they may take their rightful places within Canada’s history.
“Most people don’t know that we have Black history in Alberta. I’m searching for ways to make this history widely available to everyone. I believe the past teaches us the why of who we are today. If we don’t know who we are today, we can’t move forward into a hopeful future,” she says.
Cheryl’s quest to share Alberta’s Black history has led her to embrace other forms of storytelling: film and theatre. To Cheryl, each medium has its own particular beauty and performs a different function, allowing her to reach different audiences.
Her introduction to screenwriting came in the late 1980s when Toronto story and script editor Ken Chubb led a series of workshops across Canada for CBC. The workshops opened doors. Cheryl was asked to contribute to a National Film Board (NFB) series called Playing Fair. She co-wrote the screenplay with Clem for a film to be directed by independent filmmaker Selwyn Jacob. The result was Carol’s Mirror, which went on to win three national and international educational film awards. Jacob became an important mentor, encouraging Cheryl to make the leap from writing prose to writing for film.
Cheryl went on to write for the television series North of 60 and write and direct documentaries that examine Black life in Canada: The Journey of Lesra Martin, Kicking Up A Fuss: The Charles Daniels Story and John Ware Reclaimed. She also wrote The Sender for Obsidian Theatre Company’s smash hit Canadian film series 21 Black Futures.
Meanwhile, Cheryl’s attention turned to another form of narrative, this time for the theatre. Her first play Turnaround, co-written with Clem, debuted in 1999. Others followed in succession: The Devil We Know, also co-written with Clem, and Heaven.
Cheryl wore multiple hats in 2014-2015 when she co-produced the Black Canadian Theatre Series with Janelle Cooper of Calgary’s Ellipsis Tree Collective. She also wrote one of the series’ plays, John Ware Reimagined, which was subsequently staged in Edmonton and Blyth, Ontario.
Sometimes writers are drawn to a particular story. John Ware Reimagined was one of those pieces with unfinished business – and a long history. “John Ware’s children were elders in my community when I was a child,” says Cheryl. “I had heard the name but had no idea of the significance of the family until my brother Richard went to the Glenbow Museum when he was about 12 years old and came back home, telling me – with absolute shock – that John Ware was a famous Black cowboy from southern Alberta.”
That discovery was the genesis of a lifelong journey for Cheryl. Thanks to decades of research, she has reclaimed his narrative, correcting inaccuracies that many have about him and sharing her findings both through the play and the film. The NFB documentary had its world premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival in 2020, where it received the CTV Alberta Feature Audience Choice Award. It has since been screened at multiple festivals and events, and has received other awards.
Discussions in Cheryl’s film focus on the silence about the history of Black Canadians in the Prairies and its link to the silence about Canadian racism. “It’s not a film about the past. It’s a film about who we are now because of the past,” she says. “It was really important for me to make a film that was not solely about the racism John Ware experienced.” The film is also about love. “It was important to make it beautiful and show the love that he shared with his wife and children.” Audiences agreed with her choice. John Ware Reclaimed won multiple awards in 2021.
In 2020, Cheryl also saw a 30th anniversary annotated reprint of her first book Pourin’ Down Rain and served on the advisory board for CBC’s Black on the Prairies, a multi-platform resource that explores the past and present lives of Black people on the Prairies.
For decades, Cheryl’s schedule has been packed with a multitude of speaking engagements, literary workshops, panels and juries. She also continues her research, writing and service to her community. She volunteers with the Calgary Black Chambers, serving as the organization’s Historian in Residence. Whether it’s through formal volunteer positions or through organic one-on-one connections, she is an active mentor, paying forward the generosity of those who guided her as a young writer. “Nobody builds a career in the arts on their own,” she says.
Profiled in Who’s Who in Black Canada, Cheryl has received public and critical acclaim, and garnered multiple awards over the decades, including the 2008 national Harry Jerome Award for The Arts. She received the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award in 2021. In 2022, Cheryl will receive the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).
Cheryl and Clem live in Calgary, where they spend as much time as they can with two grandchildren whom they adore beyond words.
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