On Saturday, October 29th, the cast of the soon-to-hit-Broadway musical, Come From Away, graced the stage of the Steele Community Center in Gander, Newfoundland. Nearly half the population of Gander – 5,000 people – watched Canadian playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s story of their tiny Canadian town’s role in hosting 38 grounded planes, carrying 6,700 passengers, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Gander, Newfoundland has a history that is inextricable from its ties to human flight, so much so that most of the major streets are named after famous aviators. Gander International Airport, built as a stopover point for planes to refuel on their way to join the conflicts leading up to World War II, has always been the heart of Gander. The town was quite literally founded around that airport, not even incorporating as a city until 1958, after the war was over.
It is unsurprising, then, that a town whose entire existence is built upon the need for travelers to have a safe waypoint on their journey would be a hospitable place.
But on September 11, 2001, the world saw the incredible depths of just how deep that hospitality went. The town went out of it’s way to accommodate the travelers. It’s a story that has been used as a modern-day parable for hospitality and the magnitude of human kindness. Their generosity has been memorialized in book, movie, and radio play form. Lufthansa even named one of the planes in their fleet after Gander and the city of Halifax in honor of their kindness.
To the residents of Gander, however, it never seemed like such a big deal. ““Some people dropped in for a bucket-o’-tea and a biccy,” Oz Fudge, a local constable, said in an article for the New York Times. “What’s the big deal?”
Bonnie Harris, a woman who is represented in the play by Newfoundland actress Petrina Bromley, echos the sentiment. Harris is the manager at Gander’s SPCA. She, along with a small team of other townspeople, looked after the animals that were in the cargo holds of the 38 planes, numerous dogs and cats, and even two bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees). She transferred their crates from the cargo holds to a holding area, and worked with her charges from sun up to sundown, cleaning their kennels and keeping them safe. She worked around the clock, ensuring that the animals had food, blankets and water, and that any of the animals who required medication were taken care of.
To her, it wasn’t some grand act of charity, it was just the right thing to do. “It’s a learned behavior. My mom, my grandmother were the type of people that if you needed something and they had it, you could have it. Even if they still needed it,” she said in a phone interview with DC Theatre Scene. “It’s a family value to me.”
She said that when the Come From Away the playwrights spent a month in Gander, conducting interviews and research for the play, they toured the airport with Reg Wright, the president of the Gander International Airport Authority.
“When the tour finished, Reg just stopped and looked up at them and said, ‘so what are you doing again?’.
And they said, ‘We’re making a musical.’
‘About people making sandwiches?’”
Their kindness is just a part of the culture there, and something that she hopes isn’t unique to Newfoundland. ““The type of people I’ve grown up with, and I’m sure most Newfoundlanders … you help people out,” she said. “It’s just what you do.”
For some of the residents, the musical may have finally brought into perspective just how powerful the actions their town took were, even if they won’t admit it. Harris says she doesn’t feel like she’s changed much as a result of all the attention. But she did admit that, perhaps, she is learning to give herself more credit.
“I’m a pretty reserved person. I consider myself to be pretty reserved,” she said. So, when she was told that the Bonnie Harris in the play is a bit of a badass, she remembered thinking, “No, I’m not.” But after her friend saw the play and commented on the just how well Petrina Bromley embodies her on stage, she admitted, “Maybe I am a little more badass than what I think I am.”
But those Gander residents who were actively involved in the events of those four days aren’t the only ones affected by the powerful story woven by Come from Away. Sitting in the front row of the performance was one of the two families that have arrived in Gander from Syria. “I’m so proud that I’m here,” Talal Ibrahim, the father of that family said in the New York Times article. “I had heard a lot about this story, but now I understand it.”
According to Harris, those two new families are already seeing the welcoming and inclusive spirit of the town. This past weekend, they were taken out trick-or-treating, and playwrights David Sankoff and Irene Hein, as well as Irene’s child, Molly, went out with them.
The people of Gander, who took in stranded American and foreign travelers in the darkest time in contemporary American history, still stand as a beacon of decency and compassion for the world. By the time Come from Away opens on Broadway next year, we will know whether the United States will stand with them.
See Come from Away onstage in Toronto, CA at the Royal Alexandra Theatre from Nov 15 to Jan 8
Details and tickets
Previews for its Broadway opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre begin on Feb 18.
Details and tickets