COME FROM AWAY Opening Night in Atlanta Includes Fascinating Talk Back
by Josephine Tuso-Key
Stop and remember for a moment where you were when you first heard the news about 9.11. I was in my car on the way to work, teaching 3rd grade at a Catholic school in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the time. I was pregnant with my 3rd child who is now 17, and I remember having to stop watching the footage as it made me feel queasy and I worried about the anxiety causing a miscarriage.
Anyone who remembers that day was profoundly affected, whether they were directly involved with the tragedy or not. My brother-in-law was in Canada at the time, and instead of taking a flight home, he booked a rental car and made it back across the border before it closed. I know friends who were in NYC, one of them in the subway directly under the twin towers. She told me it sounded like a car crash up on the street and she didn't think much of it. She boarded her train and went where she needed to go. In retrospect, she feels it was probably the safest place she could have been in Manhattan that day.
I read a story in a magazine a few years back about a town called Gander in Newfoundland, Canada. It was written by a passenger on an airline who found themselves stranded there on 9.11 due to closed US air space. The passenger described their stay there as a serendipitous moment--a blessing in disguise. Apparently the people there were so welcoming and accommodating.
Last summer when I was in NYC, my friend saw a musical on Broadway called COME FROM AWAY. She was so impressed with the show and described the story. I recognized it from the article I read. I didn't get a chance to see the show that visit, but finally saw it at the Fabulous Fox Theater in Atlanta Tuesday evening. This show is special for a myriad of reasons. The story is incredible. The cast of 12 plays multiple characters with several different accents. I found myself misty-eyed several times as the story is so well written and moves seamlessly, the songs are uplifting, the orchestra is fantastic, and the set and choreo are simplistic and yet wildly creative. This night was made even more special by what happened after the show.
In the audience that night were four very special people, who joined the cast on the stage for a talkback once the show had completed. The panel included some real-life Gander/9.11 storytellers who are portrayed as characters in the show: Kevin Tuerff, a passenger who wrote the book "Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11"; Captain Beverly Bass, an American Airlines pilot whose plane was one of the 38 that touched down on the tarmac that day; Claude Elliot, former mayor of Gander who coordinated efforts for the small town of 9,000 people to welcome 7,000 guests. Also in attendance was Nadia Theodore, the Consul General of Canada.
Kevin Teurff moderated the evening and is the real-life inspiration for the character Kevin, with the lumberjack shirt and boyfriend who was also named Kevin. He had a few stories to tell and also had signed copies of his book available for sale.
KEVIN: Another story that's in the book, but not the musical--Kevin and I were staying at the College of the North Atlantic--a community college. They had a cooking school. They taught people how to be cooks for marine vessels, It's amazing. On day three they had a sit down dinner for 274 people. They had enough chicken breasts and it was better than anything we had on our European vacation. Basically, the school bought every chicken in Gander, so we ate all the chicken. They didn't get any.
Because we weren't allowed to take our luggage off the plane we wanted socks, underwear, a change of clothes. So Kevin and I decided to set off to the Wal Mart in town. The fact they had a Wal Mart made us say, "Well this isn't so small. They have a Wal Mart here."
We couldn't have walked more than 50 yards, and all of a sudden a car pulls up, rolled down the window, and said, "Hey what are you doing?"
We thought we were in trouble, and said, "We're so sorry. We'll get off the road."
"Well, what are you doing?"
"We're going to the Wal Mart."
"Well, hop in!"
I got trained by stranger danger--never get in the car with strangers. Then a second car, and a third. then, "I think we'd better go, or we'll never get there."
When I was researching for my book, I heard stories from folks in Gander like, "Oh we met this wonderful couple from Italy, we're still friends with them, " and I said, "Did the mayor go on television and say, 'If you see somebody walking down the road, pick them up and give them a ride?' they said, 'No, we just did it,' "
These are the types of things I really think about and wonder would we do the same? Would you all do the same in Georgia? Tonight, if you had a million people drop in at Atlanta Hartsfield, would you take them home to take a shower? Would you pull over your car and give them a ride? I've learned the difference between the words empathy and compassion. Empathy would be the people in Gander sending thoughts and prayers and some pizzas out to the plane. Compassion is when you engage in the suffering of others and that is what the people did. They let us into their homes, they gave us basic human needs: food, clothing, and shelter.
Claude Elliot, former mayor of Gander, explained that hospitality and taking care of others is how people of Gander are brought up.
CLAUDE: It's just the way of life. It's the way we've always been. We don't lock our doors and leave the keys in the car overnight. I remember I was interviewed by a radio station in Detroit. The guy said, "We understand, Mr. Mayor, that you gave complete strangers your car to drive"
"Yes, sir, we did."
"Wow," he said, "We wouldn't do that in Detroit."
I said, "No, but we don't live in Detroit."
"Weren't you scared they were going to steal your vehicle?"
I said, "Not really, we live on an island."
You know when you come from a small town and you touch down at New York City and see the tall skyscrapers and everything and you realize, wow, the devastation could have been so much worse than what it was. It's so dense there. When I went there, myself and my wife decided to go to Times Square, and I'm standing on the corner, waiting across the street, and I look four ways. I see more people than what lived in Gander. If you put 7000 people down in New York City or in Atlanta, it's probably not going to seem all that bigger, but you put 7000 people in a city of 9.000, you're going to see a difference. We always say, for instance, when you go for dinner we say, "Can I get a glass of water, my love?" "What can I do for you, my love?" Everything is "My love." That's how we are in Newfoundland.
I've seen all kinds of casts play in Come From Away. It's irrelevant if they speak like me or act like me, it's the story that needs to get out. The story is being told, and this world today needs good news stories like this one.
Captain Beverly Bass spoke about her experience when they landed, and that she was instructed not to tell the passengers too much. She announced there was an incident on American soil.
She also mentioned the scene in the show with the BBQ Grills, and how when she went to Gander to see the show, the Newfoundlanders didn't laugh at the same bits as the Americans.
CAPTAIN BASS: The bar-be-que scene where they just want you to go take bbq grills out of people's yards--In Newfoundland, they didn't laugh at that, because they would do that. I asked Claude about it, "Would people really take people's bbq grills?"
He said, "Yes".
I said, "Oh, in Texas we wouldn't do that."
There is now a children's book being written about Captain Bass
CAPTAIN BASS: Random House approached me after they saw the show in New York and asked if I would write my autobiography. I said, "No, I don't think I'm that interesting." There have been a lot of autobiographies written by a lot of women airline pilots so I didn't think they needed mine. After multiple conversations we agreed to whittle it down to a children's book, and I said, "OK, I'll to that." because if I have the ability to encourage any young person to live the life I lived and have the career I had in 42 years of American, I can't deprive anyone of that. The book is called, "Me and the Sky" and will come out September 10th.
COME FROM AWAY is touring nationally and will soon be at a city near you. Visit https://comefromaway.com/tickets.php?content=tixtour to get tickets.