Written by Lindsey Ferris
With the songs from the musical Come From Away still playing in my ears, the memories my parents have shared over the years of 9/11 comes to mind and I’m left again in awed silence of how the world responded to the devastation.
Working off the baby fat from her last pregnancy, my mom was at the gym on September 11th. The drone of the small T.V. mounted on the wall was suddenly interrupted with a breaking news alert as she sweated on the elliptical. Images scrolled across the screen one after another. Smoke billowing from broken windows and then the second tower – unbelievably – being struck. My dad was in Newark on a trip; he was a first officer for Continental and flew the 737. Over the next four days as the U.S. air space was closed, my mom fielded calls from friends and family checking if my dad had been flying that day. Repeated answers of “he’s safe” and “I’m not sure” were spoken over the phone. It was odd, she says to me, remembering this moment, to not hear the drone of a plane or see the small silhouettes of them in the sky. Everyone felt heartbroken and uneasy about the future in the wake of 9/11. The very date – nine-eleven, spoken in reverence – has since become emblematic of a catastrophe but also of the unification of people around the world that has long outlasted that initial aftershock.
When prompted by the question, “Where were you when 9/11 happened?,” almost anyone can instantly share the exact moment when they heard the news. I am too young to remember, but looking at my parents’ faces when they describe how they heard the news of the terrorists’ attack makes me feel as if I was there. Every year, a moment of silence is held for those we lost, and as time passes, the way we speak of 9/11 transforms from anger to remembrance to pride at how the U.S. united. Now, almost twenty years after the fact, a new generation has been raised and they don’t have that intimate connection to the day. While they grew up with its scars and aftereffects on the edges of their lives, it is a moment in history to them, not a memory. As more time passes and that moment becomes more distant, it is important to memorialize the past so that no one forgets it. While we hope that day will never be repeated, its remembrance is important and has been done through story, documentary, and photography. Come From Away, nominated for best musical in the 2017 Tony Awards, brings a new form of commemoration to the stage.
As I sat in the audience during curtain call, tears slipped down my face despite the joyful folk music playing. This one-act musical had instantly become my new favorite show.
Inspired by the documentary You Are Here, Come From Away puts song to part of the story that is 9/11. This story focuses on the 38 planes that landed in Gander, Newfoundland, a rural Canadian island that boasted an enormous airport which had seen decreased use since the induction of the jet age facilitated nonstop travel over the Atlantic. Within a day, the small town’s population nearly doubled for a three-day international sleepover after the U.S. airspace was closed and planes performed emergency landings across the world. Despite the language barriers and clashing cultures, the Newfoundlanders created a temporary home for the stranded travelers by offering everything they had to bring comfort. From sharing their home to potluck dinners, the community embraced the travelers as their own.
I saw the show in February when it toured in Austin and have listened to the music on repeat since. As I sat in the audience during curtain call, tears slipped down my face despite the joyful folk music playing. This one-act musical had instantly become my new favorite show. I watched each character run to the front of the stage and take their bow, as I clapped fervently for what each person represented in the world. On my way home, I was still pondering why Come From Away’s portrayal of 9/11 had affected me so deeply.
Growing up with a pilot as my father, I had always imagined flying just like my dad. The allure of the open sky and anything being possible made commanding a plane romantic to me. Beverly Bass, the actual 9/11 pilot, was depicted in Come From Away and represents everything I had once dreamed of becoming. She had climbed the ranks of the industry despite sexist barriers and constant complaints from her male cohorts and became the first female captain at American Airlines. Her solo, Me and the Sky, shares her life story in a strong feminist tone as she lists her greatest achievements while backed by an all-female chorus. I could see myself in every word, from her father encouraging her to persevere, to Beverly taking charge of every situation she was put in. Her strength was, and continues to be, inspiring for any woman to not take no for an answer.
Friendship can be the only thing that seems to be holding you up when the world around you is crashing down. Hannah, an actual passenger on Beverly’s plane who is a character in the show, portrays that. Her son was a firefighter in Brooklyn just across the bridge from Manhattan and the Twin Towers. When greeted by Beaulah, a real-life-inspired volunteer from Newfoundland, Hannah refused to shower or do anything that would take her away from the phone station. Hannah’s son was missing, despite not being scheduled to work that day with the fire department. Beaulah stood by her side in unity, offering bad jokes as comfort, because her own son was a firefighter and she understood the worry a mother has for her kids. The two women became close over the three days and formed a friendship that continues today. Hearing the pain in Hannah’s song as she called New York again and again, berating herself for not being there for her son, tore at me. It was the same worry my family felt for my dad and Beaulah’s kindness was my mom’s friends who were constantly checking on her. People rising up to support the ones who can’t carry their fears alone anymore happen everyday but are needed most when hope is hard to find.
That’s when I realized why the show stayed with me long after the house lights came up. Come From Away shared the message of what it means to come together when the world seems to be falling apart.
The planes that landed at Gander came from all over the world and the language barriers that resulted from that threatened to panic stranded travelers even more. As people were directed from plane to bus to reach their shelter, one African family was fearful of following Canadian directions because they had no idea what was going on or where they were being led. But when the driver of a transportation bus pulled out the Bible peeking from their luggage and flipped to Phillipians 4:6, reading, “Be anxious for nothing,” this new form of communication helped the family understand that the Newfoundlanders could be trusted. Beyond the essentiality of communication, this bus driver’s actions proved that at the root of it we’re all the same. The Bible this family read somewhere in Africa is the same Bible the Canadian busdriver read and exemplifies the universality of humanness. The musical is full of moments that prove we’re all human before anything else and that that can always unite us. We all need food and we all worry about our loved ones and we all want to help each other, despite what we usually see as barriers – race, nationality, sexuality, religion. That’s when I realized why the show stayed with me long after the house lights came up. Come From Away shared the message of what it means to come together when the world seems to be falling apart.
As I think about the show today, I can see the similarities to how the world is responding to COVID-19. Once again people are pulling together to bring support to others in need, whether it is first responders or families affected. Younger generations have reacted to Come From Away because of its ability to truly portray events they never experienced. It allows them to see and understand how the catastrophe of 9/11 impacted the world despite not being alive during the event. Perhaps a musical bringing quarantine life to the stage will immortalize this moment and how people are responding in the best ways they can. Musical or not, one thing we have learned from the last few months is that humanity prevails – today, like twenty years ago, we see again and again that people are kind and compassionate. As we face another crisis that will define a generation, knowing that there is hope brings stability into a world of constant uncertainty.