Come From Away speaks to the power of hospitality in a hurting world
I spent most of my summer in Manhattan. Amidst a power outage that cast our residence into darkness and heat waves that left us clinging to air conditioned coffee shops, I celebrated any occasion to shelter in a theater and watch a Broadway show.
I was on a limited budget in an expensive city, so I bought a rear mezzanine ticket to Come From Away. Unlike the shows I typically enjoy (ask me to rap the entire Hamilton soundtrack), I knew nothing about this one apart from its Tony nominations and that I was vaguely confident that it was about 9/11. I took my seat in the corner of a small theater and settled in to be “welcomed to the Rock.”
Come From Away is, in fact, a self-proclaimed show about 9/12, not 9/11. On September 11th, 2001, when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, the United States’ airspace closed. In its wake, all planes bound for America were redirected, and 38 of them were sent to Gander, Newfoundland, a small town in Canada.
As the show’s opening number, a captivating anthem of Islander identity, will tell you, the airport used to be one of the biggest in North America, as flights would stop to refuel after crossing the Atlantic. By 2001, it was largely empty and sat quietly in a town of 9,000.
Like Gander, Come From Away makes so much out of little. It’s a small cast, with a simple orchestra that sits on stage. Members of the company fill multiple roles – a “plane person” or a Newfoundlander, a mayor or a mother – throwing on hats or flannels as quickly as they throw on new voices and personalities.
Take, for example, the song “28 Hours.” As passengers sit on runways, completely unaware of what has caused them to land, the stage spins to allow the company of a dozen to introduce you to planes full of the 7,000 passengers that were redirected to Gander. They sit on that runway, as the title suggests, for “over an entire day,” and the score and script deftly demonstrate the frustration and panic that set in as it becomes increasingly clear that something has gone horribly wrong.
Come From Away is a show that can surprise you with beautiful music and beautifully human stories. It was carefully crafted by the memories of the real passengers and Newfoundlanders lived through September 2001 after a ten year reunion gathered the passengers, and the writers of the show, back together, and those stories give the show an emotional weight I could have never seen coming.
What other show stops still in its tracks and gives the stage to George W. Bush’s 9/11 address to the nation? There are no jokes or teasing of the Texan president – the moment captures a country holding her breath, devastated and confused. Where else does a Broadway show incorporate a Catholic hymn (“Prayer of St. Francis”) and again pause as the passengers and their hosts join in prayer? The chorus that builds – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic petitions all weaving together, praying for peace and grappling with grief – can’t help but draw you into prayer as well, with passengers worried for their loved ones and hosts that are unsure of how to meet the needs of their guests.
Come From Away is a testimony to the seemingly unending generosity of the hosts who made shelters out of schools, donated clothing and toiletries, and opened tables and homes to uprooted strangers. It invites you to encounter the world shift that occurred on that Tuesday morning, one I wasn’t old enough to remember. It draws you into the lives of the people who lost their children, saw their vocation as a pilot “used as the bomb” in a global attack, or unexpectedly found love while stranded.
It is not that Come From Away is particularly action-packed. The show is more than willing to pause, to cry with the passengers and with our country, when needed. It is also willing to laugh, to celebrate, and to demonstrate the resilient power of hospitality. It takes itself, and the stories it is entrusted with, seriously, and it is those stories of love, parenthood, loss, uncertainty, and heroism, that form the emotional center of the show.
Maybe it was only Gander, a town used to tight-knit community, that could have opened its doors so completely to the plane people. But I’d like to hope that it speaks more to the ability, and willingness, of any human community to welcome and comfort those most in need.
I was caught off guard, sitting in that small cheap seat. I laughed, I cried (sobbed), I prayed, I danced, and I found myself at home, even for just a 100 minute runtime, in the town and the hearts of the Newfoundlanders. As we commemorate 9/11 this week, perhaps we can take this chance to enter into the stories of the people who lived it so particularly, eighteen years ago, and so remember the lives changed and lost on September 11th, 2001.
Maggie Garnett is a sophomore studying theology and constitutional studies. You can find her singing along to the Come From Away soundtrack on a cross-campus walk. Email her to join in at firstname.lastname@example.org.