ABOVE PHOTO: The First North American Tour Company of “COME FROM AWAY” Photo credit Matthew Murphy
By Kharisma McIlwaine
The events of September 11, 2001 will be etched in history forever.
Americans came face to face with tremendous loss; our sense of security was shattered, resulting in a shift in the way we live and exist in this country. In the midst of all of the cruelty and devastation that was experienced on 9/11, there were also acts of kindness that in part restored many people’s faith in humanity. The Broadway production “Come From Away” tells one of those stories.
“Come From Away” tells the story of a group of almost 7,000 passengers stranded on 9/11 and the kindness they received from the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland in Canada. The Tony Award-winning musical (best direction of a musical) features a book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and is directed by Christopher Ashley.
The Canadian musical opened on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre after a very successful run at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Ford Theatre in Washington D.C., and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.
“Come From Away” is currently on a national tour in the US, and stars Marika Aubrey, Jordan Barbour, Clint Butler, Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Kate Etienne, Amir Haidar, Phyre Hawkins, Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, James Kall, Julia Knitel, Ali Momen, Kristen Peace, Cailin Stadnyk, Danielle K. Thomas and Jeremy Woodard. Thomas, who plays Hannah and a number of other characters in the production, spoke to the SUN about the importance of telling this story and what she hopes audiences will gain from seeing it.
A Brooklyn New York native, Thomas began her journey into musical theater by way of dance.
“I wanted to be the first thick dancer in Alvin Ailey,” Thomas said. “I was a dance major in high school. I had done a movie when I was 14, “Crooklyn” — it fell into my lap. I had done “Crooklyn” and still didn’t want to do theater or acting, but I knew that I could act. We were doing The Wiz in high school. I said [that] I sing in church all the time, and I wanted in so let me try to do this musical. I did and I got Dorothy.”
“I would do the musicals, but because I [really] liked the dancing parts, I still wanted to be a dancer,” she said. “[The] dance instructor at my school had gone to Howard. He said, ‘There is a program that does all that you do — I think you should go there. I didn’t want to. My mom literally told me, ‘You better pack your bags, because you’re going, [whether] you choose to — pack well or not.’ She drove me and left me there and it’s literally the best thing she ever did.”
Thomas went on to gain success in her career early on and has been consistently working. She landed a role in “Burn The Floor” before joining the cast of ‘Avenue Q,’ where she was part of the production for over a decade.
“I’m one of the few people in theater who’s been blessed to work pretty much consistently,” Thomas said. “I might have had a break when I chose to when my father passed. I might have done a survival job for a year, again because I chose to [live] in New York, but I’ve been working, so I’ve been lucky. I left the show that I’ve been doing for almost 13 years, “Avenue Q”, for rehearsals for this tour.”
Thomas describes her journey with “Come From Away” as “life changing.” She is currently on tour with her husband and 15-month-old son.
“It is the greatest gift,” she said. “I tell people all the time [that] you’re better for hearing this story. I’m better for being in this company. My kid loves these people. I love these people who have become my family. It’s about inclusion, compassion and understanding. On 9/11, to open up your doors to strangers — who could’ve been part of whatever — to open up your home, your churches, your schools, you just live your life with these people, because you see them. They gave them compassion at a time of confusion, not knowing what’s going on.”
Thomas plays a number of characters in the production. Her main character is a woman named Hannah O’Rourke.
“It’s six women and six men, and we play about four or five characters each,” she said. “My main character is Hannah O’Rourke. I’m playing a 50-something year old Irish woman. She is the mom of a first responder that landed in Gander. She just wants to know about her son — is he ok and what happened? She spends the whole show trying to get in contact with her son Kevin. She’s an amazing strong woman. She’s still amazing to this day. I [Hannah] text with my granddaughter, Kevin’s daughter, all the time and just give an update on how we’re doing. Now as a first-time mom at 44, with a 15-month-old boy, I can relate.”
In addition to offering powerful storytelling, “Come From Away” also has a tremendously diverse cast.
“I love that this show is not about who or what you are, because we are all at our core the same,” Thomas said. “I love that this show includes us in a larger capacity than we’re used to, and we just get to be.”
“Come From Away” also speaks to audiences through its dynamic Grammy Award nominated soundtrack.
“I’m a native New Yorker — my parents are from the West Indies, so this is not the kind of music you think I’m used to,” Thomas said. “When I tell you that you just feel that bodhrán start beating in the beginning — it comes from inside. You see audience members clapping and enjoying. It just makes you feel good. It is real, it is powerful, it is the best!”
Thomas shares her hope for audiences to mirror the citizens of Gander and be kinder to one another.
“I want people to be kind and to be better,” she said. “If these people in the midst of this tragic story could be kind and show compassion when people really needed it despite what the circumstances could be, that is a lesson in itself. It’s great to be reminded that there is compassion and kindness… it’s needed. A smile can change somebody’s day. If you can do more like the people of Gander even better.”
“What you say on 9/11 is that we will not forget,” Thomas said. “For the younger generation, it’s great for them to know about it, but it’s also great for them to know about it in a good way. We like to say we’re the “9/12 story” moving forward, and we are. If you don’t know, you’ll ask questions like,”Can I know more about 9/11?” after you see it.”
“For me, as a native New Yorker, [who was] there in New York on 9/11, it was hard, but this show changed the story for me for the better,” she said. “It didn’t take away the importance of what it is, it added layers to it. This story — it’s important to be a part of it, and it’s important to spread it. It’s important to live in the nature of this show. See people where they are, how they are and regardless of what that is… just be kind.”
To support Danielle and her journey, follow her on FB at Danielle Kamilah Thomas Banks and @dtdramatics on IG. “Come From Away” will be at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music February 7-12th. To find out more information on tickets and showtimes, visit: www.kimmelculturalcampus.org.
For more information on “Come From Away” visit: www.ComeFromAway.com and be sure to follow @wecomefromaway across social media platforms.