by Father Mark Goldasich
It’s said that Kansas City audiences are too generous, especially in giving standing ovations at the theater. I agree.
Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of good theater in Kansas City, but only exceptional performances deserve a standing ovation. Oh, I’ll clap loudly at great and even good shows, but I’m chintzy in awarding ovations.
Well, on Feb. 12, I attended a show at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Missouri, where I could hardly wait to stand, cheer and whistle my approval. The musical was “Come From Away: The Remarkable True Story” and it was filled with dazzling lyrics, humor, drama and, most of all, a message.
For those not familiar with it, “Come From Away” is the story of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when, for the first time in history, the United States closed its airspace.
Thirty-eight planes, carrying some 7000 people of various nationalities, were diverted to the airport at Gander, Newfoundland.
The “plane people” have no idea why. They land, but are kept in the dark and on the planes — some for 28 hours — and rumors begin to spread, like: “There’s been an accident” and “A helicopter has crashed into a building” and “It’s World War III.”
Many “plane people” don’t speak English, which greatly complicates things. Also, the sheer number of “plane people” nearly doubles the population of Gander once they’re allowed to deplane.
The citizens of Gander, however, are up for this incredible challenge of housing and feeding this horde of unexpected visitors.
But despite being warmly welcomed, the “plane people” are suspicious. One touching moment is when a group of people from Africa is asked to exit a bus carrying them to a camp where they’re to be housed.
Some people from Gander have donned their Salvation Army uniforms. The Africans mistake them for soldiers and refuse to get off the bus.
Unable to communicate with them, the bus driver notices a woman carrying a Bible. Although he can’t read this foreign language, he knows the Scripture numbering system is the same.
He finds the passage from Chapter 4 of the Letter to the Philippians, Verse 6 — “Be anxious for nothing” — and points to it. Immediately, understanding dawns and “that’s how we started speaking the same language.”
Barriers are broken down through the word of God and bridges are built.
Another moving number in the play is entitled, “Prayer,” which starts out with the familiar “Prayer of St. Francis.” As the song goes on, other groups are seen praying and singing in their respective languages as Jews, Muslims and Hindus.
In this time of darkness and fear, all turn to the heavens for light and comfort. And these various languages of prayer blend at song’s end into a beautiful harmonious whole.
A heartbreaking aspect of the play concerns Hannah, whose son is a New York City firefighter. When she can’t get any information on his status, she asks a local, Beulah, to take her to a Catholic church to pray.
Beulah takes Hannah under her wing as she, too, has a son who is a local firefighter. The two bond ever more closely as it becomes clear that the news of Hannah’s son is not good.
There are many uplifting themes present in this production. Undergirding the whole show is the spontaneous, generous welcome of the people of Gander and the surrounding small towns.
The friendships formed during that fateful stay in Newfoundland have a profound effect on everyone. The “plane people” want to repay the generosity they’ve experienced, but the locals will have none of it. They insist that anyone in their position would do the same.
The passengers, however, begin to stuff various currencies into a suggestion box in a building, and the money, when counted, totals over $60,000. The play ends with some “plane people” returning to Gander 10 years later. By then, the passengers have collected money for a scholarship fund for the Gander students that sits at over $1 million.
The musical reminds us of the best that we as human beings are capable of. The horror of terrorism is counteracted by the selfless kindness of the Gander people. That kindness in turn generates kindness.
It’s not perfect, though. Throughout the play, one character — Ali, a Middle Eastern man — is looked upon, unjustly, with great suspicion, right up to the end, reminding us that there’s still work to do before we all see one another with the eyes of God.
Although the show has moved on from KC, be on the lookout for it in the future. Go see it and, if you hear someone standing and wildly cheering, “Bravo!” . . . well, just pretend you don’t know me.