Come from Away: Answering Moments of Terror with Artful Living

Cast of Come from Away
Cast of Come from Away

I happened to be in New York the weekend after yet another auto-as-weapon attack—this one on Halloween, timed by the (alleged) perpetrator with a pernicious goal of turning a date that youthful city-dwellers cultivate for playful-pretend horror into a gruesomely real day of death. I flew into the city the next day, November 1. Initial reports on the cowardly attack, stories which splashed images across social media as well as through formal news outlets, suggested I might find a city in the throes of anxiety.

After all, the famed New York marathon was approaching, bringing thousands of runners from all over the world to town. The president (perhaps no surprise) didn’t help, instead issuing screaming tweets which took on a far different tone than his response to the recent Las Vegas massacre—or his immediate comments after the church shooting in a small town in Texas less than a week later.

I was prepared to encounter a city full of anxiety, with pedestrians cautiously glaring at anyone who looked different and therefore scary. I imagined near-empty restaurants, and even a people-depleted Times Square. Folks might well be huddled up at home to seek a sense of safety.

New Yorkers are tough, though.

What had brought me to the city was a meeting at the offices of the Modern Language Association (MLA), one of the major professional organizations to which I belong as an English Studies professor. Housed on one floor of a high rise in the financial district, the MLA is located less than a mile from Ground Zero. On our way to dinner in Tribeca after our first full day of work (planning to build alliances between university teachers and K-12 colleagues), our committee passed right by the gleaming new World Trade Center and memorial. We also walked past lively crowds taking in an unseasonably warm evening—settled at outdoor dining tables, clustered in conversations in lively city squares, or bounding down subway steps, determined not to be diverted from their normal patterns of daily life.

New Yorkers are also realistic, of course.

At the airport Saturday, as I headed back to Fort Worth, rows of machine-gun-toting guards greeted me when I stepped into the LGA terminal. Their bulking presence signaled the kind of “extra” security local TV news anchors had explained were being put in place both in response to the attack and to ensure that marathon runners and spectators, along with all the thousands of tourists who would come to Manhattan on any autumn weekend, could go on with their plans, feeling secure.

Yet, New Yorkers are as persistent in their optimistic embrace of life as they are practical. Attending Come from Away reminded me of this fortunate truth.

Before the play Friday evening, on my last night in the city, I had dinner at a 44th Street bistro with longtime friends before attending a play for which I’d bought a ticket months ago. We savored the food and also the bustling good will. Our waiter teased us a little when we hesitated about ordering dessert. We submitted quickly, sharing one order of profiteroles, commenting how much fun everyone around us seemed to be having too.

My play was the hit musical Come From Away. I’d chosen it based on seeing an appealing snippet performed in last summer’s Tonys telecast and because reviews repeatedly emphasized its hopeful tone. I confess to sometimes feeling discouraged these days, pulled down by the dark rhetoric and dark deeds circulating in our culture.

Performed without intermission, the story-and-song account revisits how the locals of Gander, Newfoundland generously welcomed planes diverted there just after 9-11. Stranded, frightened, exhausted travelers from around the world bonded with their hosts. While including realistic moments of tension and occasional conflict, Come From Away also recaptures and honors community-building. From a giant barbecue uniting islanders and their unanticipated visitors in communal fun, to quieter dialogues, to a hearty pub night of singing about what it takes to be a Newfoundlander, Come From Away documents how the collective human spirit—even in the face of the most challenging adversity—can indeed triumph.

This early November audience—whatever their home outside the imaginative circle of the play—embraced its themes.  We became a unified circle of imagined Newfoundlanders (and New Yorkers) in the process. In the performance’s final song-and-dance moments, everyone rose and cheered, clapped together to the beat, and hooted excited approval—for the performers, certainly, but also for ourselves and for the city.

New Yorkers (including regular visitors like me, who return to the city repeatedly, seeking just such stirring moments) strive to be artists of everyday life. Joining the celebration of Come From Away, we didn’t leave behind the growing, admittedly discouraging archive of stories about mass killings, reappearing with seemingly predictable echoes in big cities all over the world (and even in quiet churches and children’s schools).

Yet, in giving ourselves over to metaphorical, musical assertions on stage, we found a way to choose hope by making Gander, Newfoundland, our temporary imagined home. We chose to “come from away” together by insisting that there’s joy to be found, even now—in community conversations at a sidewalk café or a busy bistro, in silly playfulness around a pub table, in a bike ride along a crowded yet still-welcoming promenade, and in artful story-telling to which we all can sing along.

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