BY A. LAWRENCE CHICKERING AND JAMES S. TURNER
September 11, 2001 (9/11) Canadian air traffic control diverted 38 wide-bodied, US-bound airliners to the Gander, Newfoundland, Northeast Canada airfield. The town of Gander, population 10,000, suddenly found itself host to 6,600 stranded passengers and several hundred crew. Come From Away, the Broadway musical story of their five days together in Gander, captures their shared experiences.
Real people portrayed in the musical, from hours of interviews, include Beverley Bass, pilot of Flight 49, a 777 from Paris to Dallas, the first American Airlines female captain; Nick and Diane Marson, strangers on a plane who met in Gander and later married; and, in the words of theatre critic Peter Marks, “a gay couple worried about their reception in a remote outpost, learn[ing] a thing or two about an unlikely global hotbed of tolerance.”
The residents of Gander and surrounding towns put aside their own differences to volunteer shelter, food, medicine, entertainment, and moral support to their unexpected guests of all persuasions. The show had multiple pre-Broadway productions, to excellent reviews. Seattle Met said, in 2015, “Come From Away serves as a vigorous and uplifting ode to humanity in the face of terror.” DC Metro Theater Arts called the 2016 Ford’s Theater production “a celebration of the unflappable human spirit, and the generosity and kindness that always seems to manifest itself in our darkest hours.” This week the Broadway production received 7 Tony nominations.
Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau escorted Ivanka Trump to a Broadway preview performance March 15. They joined a delegation of 600 people—including more than 125 ambassadors to the United Nations. “The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times,” Trudeau told the audience.
The production began with the tenth anniversary of the event, which many participants returned to Gander to celebrate. Canadian-American writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein taped intimate stories of passengers, crew, and townspeople, which they wove into the musical. The experience evolved into a new dramatic form—musical as documentary.
Come From Away allows its audience to experience the uplifting spirit of personal connection, in the face of the darkest adversity and terror.
Across the country and around the world local people daily are engaging each other as in Gander: for example, in northern India, San Francisco, California, and Upper Egypt— shared ownership of public spaces promotes communities with intense personal relationships—such as schools, housing, hospitals, and drug rehab programs.
These cases rarely appear in the press because politics shies away from empowering people. Politicians rely on bureaucrats and armies of “experts” to tell them what “disadvantaged” people “need.” Their best intentioned programs often turn into objective, mechanistic nightmares that squeeze the subjective, personal connections out of the lives they shape. The Gander experience demonstrates that ordinary people can confront daunting problems and solve them together. The Washington Post calls the musical “an exuberant antidote for what ails the American soul.”
The magic of Gander is the magic of empathy in action.