Like most of his castmates in the hit musical Come From Away, Caesar Samayoa has appeared in a number of productions, on and off Broadway and in regional theater. “But I have never seen a stage door like this one in my life,” he says.
For the audience members who gather to greet the company after performances of Come From Away, Samayoa says, “it’s very little about telling us, ‘You’re so great, you were wonderful in the show.’ It’s more of a thankfulness for the story, for being reminded that people are good and kind and help each other out.”
The musical, set in the small Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes were forced to land on the morning of September 11, 2001 — and, more crucially, where locals offered shelter, food, and emotional support to traumatized passengers in the days that followed — has elicited these emotional responses since its 2015 world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Chatting after a recent matinee at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Come From Away began performances in February 2017 (opening that March 12), Samayoa and fellow original cast member Astrid Van Wieren — respectively, a native New Yorker and a Canadian actress making her Broadway debut — reflect on how this reception has affected them, and what they’ve taken from a show that has provided solace and cheer to so many fans.
“I really don’t know where to start,” says Samayoa. “This show has transformed the way I deal with people — the way I talk to strangers, how I communicate with neighbors and my family. I happen to be a pretty shy guy, but I speak to so many people now, because the show has really opened my eyes to the power of kindness. You just never know who’s going to change your life, whether you’re in a lovely situation or a difficult one.”
Van Wieren quips, “I’m not really shy. And I’ve always prided myself on being a kind person. But I think this play has really made me want to be my best self — not just to be kind in situations that come across my path, but to seek opportunities out. I keep my eyes and my heart open, always, even if it’s just a matter of giving someone a compliment. … I’ve also discovered that it’s OK to accept kindness from others, because that’s giving a gift as well.”
The characters in Come From Away represent an array of races, nationalities and faiths, and are based on actual passengers and townspeople who met that day — many of whom have come to see the show, often repeatedly, nurturing the bonds between them and developing new friendships with the actors. Van Wieren’s character, Beulah Davis, was inspired by two residents of Gander: Diane Davis, a schoolteacher, and Beulah Cooper, a legion worker. “I’ve had the delight of becoming very good friends with both of them, and they continue to inspire me,” the actress says.
Samayoa plays two travelers who had encountered intolerance before 9/11: Ali, an Egyptian chef who is Muslim and living in Hawaii, and Kevin, a gay New Yorker. The actor was introduced to the man who inspired the latter character via email. “After the La Jolla production, I was back in New York, and I got this message titled ‘My name is Kevin and I think you play me in a musical,’” he says. “He’s a wonderful person, and has shared so many stories with me. I’ve not met Ali yet, but I’ve seen pictures and heard many stories about him.”
The actor has also been approached by many audience members who are Muslim “who say to me, ‘Thank you for letting me be able to see myself on stage.’ One young woman said to me, ‘I never realized how much my parents’ lives changed that day. They always tried to hide it from me when I was a little girl to make me feel like being taken aside in airports was normal.’ She brought her parents to see the show, and they thanked me too — though they were really saying ‘thank you’ to the show, to our writers and our whole team.”
Come From Away has drawn many such repeat viewers. “A lot of people want to bring others with them, to share the experience,” says Van Wieren. First responders, family members of victims, and 9/11 survivors have attended the musical in large numbers. “We had families and widows of [the New York City fire department’s] Ladder 5 just last night,” says Samayoa. “Families of first responders were our first audience in New York. It was quite moving, to have them not only start our journey here but give us permission to keep going.”
The musical’s indomitable positivity has, naturally, led fans and critics to hail it as a sort of healing balm in our chafing political climate. “Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, there’s been a lot of divisiveness,” Van Wieren says. “So any show that can talk about reaching across the aisle, about seeing the humanity in everyone around you, that’s essential.”
Samayoa notes, “We keep hearing, ‘This show has such a huge message, we need it so much right now.’ But the message is really simple, about being kind toward one another. There are other themes, but that’s the central one, the driving force. That smiling at a stranger or saying ‘Can I help you with that?’ can change the trajectory of someone’s day, or someone’s life. I think people are grateful for the reminder.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy.