Come From Away is a play that told an amazing true-life story on the heels of the September 11, 2001 attacks that has largely been ignored or untold in the United States. 38 planes in the air that morning that were crossing the Atlantic Ocean had to land in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador since the United States had cut off air traffic to U.S. air space after the attacks.
The people of Gander responded well with housing and feeding the stranded passengers. The influx nearly doubled the population of the town in northeastern Newfoundland. The play incorporates the stories of that moment in history, right down to the names of the residents and passengers.
In real life and the play, Gander and the 38 planes represent several Canadian cities that housed passengers from 200 planes in the Maritimes. Halifax and St. John's were major cities that also housed a considerable number of passengers.
Part of why the story didn't gain notoriety in the United States had to do with George W. Bush. His September 20 speech passed along considerations to people in many countries who responded with generosity. Canada was not on that list.
David Frum, Bush speechwriter and actual Canadian, recounted the story years later. According to Frum, he recalls fellow Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson as saying "We just … forgot." Frum says he pleaded to get them to add some words for Canada.
"Let's reopen the text, I urged. Futile. Bush was adamant in his demand for an orderly and conclusive speech process, unlike the endless rewrites of the Clinton White House. Once a speech was deemed closed — it was closed."
Bush did have a known animosity toward Canada. He broke considerable tradition by not making the first foreign trip to Canada. He only finally made a trip to Canada after the 2004 election; that trip took him to Ottawa and Halifax. Not that we are doubting Frum's story, but by that logic, Canada was forgotten for over 3 more years until December 2004.
Then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did send Canadian troops to Afghanistan shortly after he September 20, 2001 snub of Canada. Chrétien did not send troops to the Iraq War in 2003, insisting that the war did not have the backing of the UN Security Council. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Paul Martin was the Canadian prime minister when Bush finally arrived, almost a full year after Chrétien left office.
Come From Away can help with some of that healing. This is a part of recent American history, history that needs to be told. Canada showed incredible generosity at a very vulnerable time. The play showcases those joyful and heartwarming stories. The George W. Bush animosity against Canada, despite its incredible generosity, is not in the play. That is part of American history, just not a part of American history that Americans know.
The Broadway debut was March 12, but the March 15 show gave the play additional publicity with the arrival of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other dignitaries, including more than 125 UN ambassadors. Trudeau was accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire on the trip, but the actual seating for the play had Ivanka Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sitting on either side of the prime minister.
"The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times," Trudeau said, according to The New York Times. "There is no relationship quite like the friendship between Canada and the United States. This story, this amazing story, is very much about that, and it's about friendship as well."
Chrétien, who was in charge in Canada that fateful day, recounted his memories from that time at the March 15 event. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was among the other current Canadian dignitaries in attendance.
Tom Brokaw, the long-time NBC anchor, was also at the event. The clip above is part of a documentary Brokaw did about the people of Gander and how well they performed to a difficult challenge. Up until the play, Brokaw's documentary was one of the few storytellers visible to Americans. The Operation Yellow Ribbon documentary originally aired on February 27, 2010, as part of the NBC coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found." — Claude the mayor from Come From Away.
Come From Away was written by a Canadian couple: Irene Sankoff and David Hein. The play was first workshopped and produced at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario before successful runs in La Jolla, CA and Seattle. The show had limited runs at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto before the Broadway debut. The play is currently being performed at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City.
We saw how many people discovered the amazing life of Alexander Hamilton through the Broadway play Hamilton. We're not saying Come From Away has the power of Hamilton, but songs and music have a way of getting people interested in American history. Even the film 1776 had some effect on enhancing people's knowledge.
While this is only a play, the hope is that the story is also timeless in the current world setting. The passengers on these flights were refugees in a sense. The response was as warm as it was instantaneous. These people were stranded and needed housing and food. But they also needed understanding and compassion. We are all human beings underneath the surface and national identity. If Canadians led the way in making people understand this basic human concept, then this story will always be remembered.
photo credit: Matthew Murphy
video credit: NBC News
map credit: Google