Caesar Samayoa would like to correct every critic and audience member who’s referred to “Come From Away” as “the new 9/11 musical,” even if he can’t blame them for the confusion.
The show, which opened on Broadway at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre March 12, references the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as a starting point. The remarkable, real-life story it depicts, however, takes place a world away from lower Manhattan, following the passengers of 38 planes diverted from American airspace to Gander, Newfoundland, and the residents who welcomed them.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, “Come From Away” is based on a series of interviews the Canadian composers conducted with both Gander locals and airline passengers on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Samayoa, 42, plays both Kevin, who is one-half of a diverted gay couple, and Ali, an international chef ostracized from his fellow passengers because he is Muslim.
Though “Come From Away” is his highest profile Broadway stint to date, Samayoa told The Huffington Post he felt slightly wary when he first heard about the project. “It took a minute for me, as a New Yorker, to ask, ‘What is this?’ I was in New York when 9/11 happened, so [the tragedy] is my 9/11 story,” he said. “Even trying to fathom a different side of it was really hard for me.” Eventually, he understood that “this isn’t a 9/11 story; this is a 9/12 story,” with a message about “embracing the world with open arms.”
As Kevin, Samayoa gets to step back into the mindset of a gay man living openly before the era of marriage equality. In one scene, the character and his boyfriend (Chad Kimball), who is also named Kevin, hesitate to enter a rowdy bar because of its predominately straight clientele. Though it’s a brief moment in the show, it serves as a reminder of just how much progress the LGBTQ community has made since 2001.
Samayoa, who is gay, has come a long way since that time, too. Identifying as LGBTQ “was still a [difficult] thing” in the early years of his acting career, and he acknowledged having had some concerns. These days, it’s a different story. “I know some people who struggle with it, and who probably never will come out. But I feel like it’s my duty to be very proud of who I am, and to be able to one of the voices,” he said. “You can’t tell me not to be proud of who I am. It’s 2017, and we are too late in the game.”
That’s one of the reasons the “unifying” theme of “Come From Away” resonated with Samayoa, whose Broadway resume includes “Sister Act” and “The Pee-Wee Herman Show.” The musical has drawn viewers from both sides of the political divide, notably on March 15, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Ivanka Trump and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for an evening performance. Photographs of the trio appeared in news outlets around the world, making Samayoa and his cast mates proud.
“We are just inundated with so much negativity about people not accepting others for who they are, [so] it’s amazing to be a part of something that can unite people, because I feel like we’re so separated in our media every day, 24 hours a day,” he said. “People are craving this kind of message, and if we open just one person’s eyes, then we’ve done our job.”
One of nine cast members to have been with “Come From Away” since its 2015 premiere in La Jolla, California, Samayoa hopes the experience sets the pace for his career moving forward. As many of his peers clamor for classic Stephen Sondheim leads, the actor said his heart lies in new, experimental works.
“I’ve always gravitated toward developing new pieces of theater, so if I continue on that trajectory, I’ll be a happy camper,” he said. “I feel like the dream roles for me are being written right now by new writers, new directors, new composers.” Whether or not those future roles match “Come From Away,” however, remains to be seen. “This feels like something I’ll never experience again,” he said.
“Come From Away” is now playing at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
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