Letter: ‘Come From Away’ — a lesson in irony

Published on April 1, 2017

The cast from "Come From Away." The musical scored critical raves with its official Broadway debut.

©The Canadian Press/Handout photo

Newfoundland has arrived with a bang on Broadway.

“Come From Away,” a celebration of Gander’s generosity towards outsiders in the aftermath of 9/11, is the talk of the town, hailed by American critics as the feel-good musical for the Trump era.

Many Gander residents themselves come from away, their generous efforts reminders of a bygone era in the outports.

As New York Times reporter Michael Paulson told the CBC, “this show is about a small community in Newfoundland that opened its arms to travellers from all over the world, and it comes at a time when the United States is sharply restricting its openness to refugees. So the discussion about the show has become one about generosity and openness to immigrants and refugees.”

As an American who has spent significant time as a researcher in Change Islands, Newfoundland, I have mixed feelings about their reaction. It’s marvellous to see this well-researched Newfoundland story be appreciated in New York. Still, I can’t shake the sense that my fellow citizens misunderstand how their own political concerns relate to the Newfoundland experience.

Certainly, it’s not surprising that “Come From Away” resonates with Americans invested in an open hearts, open doors orientation to global mobility. The story itself really is remarkable. When air traffic was grounded in the aftermath of 9/11, Gander residents pulled together to cook meals, supply and provide beds to 6,000 unexpected visitors from all over the world. “Come From Away” celebrates the bonds forged between Newfoundlanders and their visitors through this radical hospitality in crisis.

In the play, townspeople invite the “plane people” to become Newfoundlanders by Screeching them in. The finale, in turn, reminds us that, “Because we come from everywhere we all come from away.” The conclusion American audiences come to is that all differences between Newfoundlanders and come-from-aways (CFAs) have been dissolved. And the hope it sparks is that we, too, might be as generous as Gander was.

But this conclusion is where I start to feel uncomfortable, because I know that, as hospitable as outports are, there always remains a difference between natives and CFAs. While collecting oral histories in Change Islands, I was repeatedly surprised by people who arrived as young persons telling me they are not Change Islanders; after 50 years of residence, they remain in their own eyes somehow strangers. I wondered why, until an astute local remarked that one thing that makes Change Islands unique is that many of its people have grown together from babyhood to old age. This is an experience that global citizens such as myself, who move from place to place, will never have.

So while New Yorkers may appreciate the openness to strangers displayed in Gander, it should not be confused with the multicultural tolerance of difference by those whose home is everywhere. It is rooted in local communities that encourage and demand that everyone pull together: in the outports. But those same outports don’t seem to have a place in a global world that values centralization, standardization and the willingness to move to where the jobs are.

Gander knows more about this than most, as a “new town,” a designated growth centre for resettlement, a place to go when outport life becomes impossible. Many Gander residents themselves come from away, their generous efforts reminders of a bygone era in the outports. They are refugees — some willing, some unwilling — from rural areas, whose future, like that of many American Trump supporters, is uncertain in a globalized world.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the show recently with Ivanka Trump, commentators pointed out the irony of a progressive prime minister and the president’s daughter celebrating welcoming foreigners together (http://nyti.ms/2njBome).

But the real irony is that the story of Gander actually knits Trudeau’s and President Donald Trump’s concerns together. In Newfoundland, the open-hearted willingness to lend a helping hand across a globalized society was birthed in the very communities that have been decimated by it. If, then, “Come From Away” leads Americans to not only celebrate the culture of the helping hand, but also conceive of new ways to be globally connected that do justice to the rural places it comes from, this will truly be the feel-good musical for the Trump era.

Phoebe Sengers, associate professor and public voices fellow
Science and technology studies/information science
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.