Theatre has always played a crucial role in political and cultural discussion, and 18 years on from the September 11th attacks, Come From Away is no different. But, what have previous plays had to say about the moment that changed history forever, and what does Come From Away contribute to the subject now?
The Guys by Anne Nelson – 2002
Fresh from the tragedy, Nelson’s The Guys zooms right into the heart of the event, with a New York City journalist helping a fire captain write memorial speeches for his men who died trying to save victims from the World Trade Centre. Starring Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver, no expense was spared on the cast, but the stars’ other work commitments meant that it was more of a rehearsed reading set-up than a polished stage show.
It was perhaps too soon for a play of this kind, lacking space for reflection. In 2002, a review in Variety wrote: “Journalism has already done a remarkable job of bringing us into the heart of the terrible events of last fall; there’s little more that theatre, at least of this journalistic kind, can do.”
The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute – 2002
Just as close to the terrorist attack as The Guys, The Mercy Seat focused on the universal themes of human morality and impulse. LaBute’s play follows businessman Ben who only survives the World Trade Centre attack because of an extramarital affair with his boss – keeping him out of the office that morning.
The September 11 attacks serve as the backdrop while Ben has to make a decision: does he allow his family to believe him dead so he can run away with his lover – or does he come clean?
This is a step away from the raw subject at hand, introducing us to real human complexes. LaBute once revealed that “Great good can come from showing great evil”, explaining the amoral standing he takes with the play. Unlike the runaway success of Come From Away, The Mercy Seat was poorly received, with Benedict Nightingale of The Times writing: “LaBute’s 9/11 drama […] is in my view, a piece that exploits and trivialises that calamity while intermittently affecting a respect for those who died” (2003).
The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali – 2005
With a little more time having passed, the discussion drifted to how the September 11 attacks impacted race relationships in the United States. Ali’s play introduces us to a Pakistani-American family grappling with post-9/11 America, alongside their inner trials and tribulations. This play addresses themes of culture-clash and self-worth in a time of great fear and suspicion.
At this point in 9/11 theatre, Ali believes that, “by proactively confronting the history of that day through art and dialogue we can finally move beyond the anger, the violence, the extremism, the separatism, the pain and regret…” By looking at the Muslim experience, audiences are pushed to look at the bigger picture – not just the day of the attacks themselves.
When it premiered in London in 2013, Islamaphobia was steadily on the rise, making Ali’s play “a very powerful tool in creating education and awareness about Islam and Muslims in Britain. The portrayal of domestic challenges humanises Muslims by showing the same problems afflict families across all cultures” (Reyhana Patel, Huff Post, 2013)
And with over a decade since the September 11 attacks, Genevieve Graham and Irene Sankoff debuted Come From Away. The show was the first to tackle the subject with Musical Theatre…
Time and space from the attacks themselves has allowed the creative team to mould a new message around 9/11. And it’s one that continues to capture the hearts of thousands around the world. Telling the remarkable true story of 7,000 air passengers diverted to Newfoundland on September 11 2001, the musical shows new friendships and relationships blossom – a coming-together of different cultures, religions, and people with different degrees of connection to New York and the Towers… all stranded on a remote island just off Canada until American air space reopens.
Come From Away takes elements from previous 9/11 theatre productions, but puts its own identifiable spin on a brand new story. For example, we see a journalistic viewpoint – like The Guys – as Janice (Emma Salvo), local Gander news reporter helps narrate elements of the story in an adorable, nervous manner of someone thrown into the spotlight during a crisis of an unprecedented scale. Like The Domestic Crusaders, it also highlights the atmosphere of fear and the cruelty it sparked in after September 11, showing undertones of suspicion and fear of the ‘unknown’, encapsulated in the treatment of Egyptian traveller Ali (Jonathan Andrew Hume) compared to the every other character, with heart-breaking consequences. Hannah (Cat Simmons) who is desperate for news of her son personifies the human loss in the attack, which is only alluded to in Come From Away, is a kinder, more sympathetic way of handling the loss of lives that was touched on by The Mercy Seat.
But while it shares similarities, Come From Away does something no other September 11 production has done. While it shows the devastation caused by the terrorist attacks; Hannah’s heart-wrenching story as she searches for news, and the passionate pilot whose love of flying is shattered, told in Rachel Tucker’s stunning rendition of ‘Me and The Sky’ – a real highlight in the West End show. Come From Away also celebrates the new relationships, friendships and charitable nature of the people of Newfoundland who stepped-up to help the thousands of stranded passengers who landed in their town. As the passengers and locals get to know each other, Come From Away kicks into an upbeat ‘Screech In’ number – a riotous party number that involves kissing fishes, downing beer and new love. It’s a foot-stomping, celebratory number that pays tribute to humanity in the face of adversity – something that hasn’t been touched upon by 9/11 theatre before.
So, how does Come From Away deliver a new message about the tragedy of September 11, 2001? Well, it’s gathered different perspectives and put the human stories at the forefront to create something heart-warming that reverences humanity and the kindness of strangers. Outside the theatre, post-9/11 society is arguably still filled with the sort of divisions and fears shown in The Domestic Crusaders, in contrast, Come From Away is a musical that might be exactly what we need right now. And honestly, that’s not something you’d expect to hear about a piece of theatre tackling this subject matter, but that’s what makes it so different, and so worth your time.