by Barbara Smith

“This is a play about 9/12, not 9/11,”says actor Rodney Hicks, who is part of the ensemble cast of “Come from Away,” set to make its Broadway debut next month. The journey of the acclaimed musical that tells the true story of the day and days after 9/11, which has its origins at the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) in 2015, comes full circle this weekend with a one-night-only command performance as a centerpiece of the famed Playhouse’s annual gala.  Held at San Diego’s Marriott Marquis Marina, the gala also features a tribute to Artistic Director Christopher Ashley in honor of his ten years of vision and leadership at La Jolla’s landmark theatre center.

The “Come From Away” concert will be performed by the Broadway-bound cast, most of whom originated their roles in the world-premiere LJP production, including Hicks, Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, Geno Carr, Joel Hatch, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley, along with newcomer Kendra Kesselbaum, who appeared in the Seattle Repertory Theatre production.

At first glance “Come From Away” is an unlikely story for an uplifting musical–a day of horror and loss. Yet the play, instead of focusing on the heartbreak of that macabre event, shines a light on the humanity that was extended from people who thought it was perfectly natural to open their arms and their hearts to strangers in need. For actor Hicks, the special performance is a kind of coming home, as he has been with the show since its LJP inception, where he originated the role of Bob, a stranded passenger in flight back home to New York when it was diverted to the small, isolated town of Gander, Newfoundland. The warmth and generosity of the residents of that tiny town is conveyed using all the magical tools of theatre—music, storytelling, performance and design—to masterfully deliver a joyful experience. And, says Hicks, for himself and the cast of 12, who have bonded like a family, and for the thousands who have seen the play as it has toured the country, it has touched wounded hearts and healed in its celebration of the human spirit.

“The show is about hope and the strength to endure,” says Hicks. “It celebrates the elasticity of the human spirit and tells us that unconditional kindness was and is capable of changing in troubling times.” Hicks is speaking by phone from his apartment in New York (he recently relocated from Portland in preparation for the Broadway debut), his voice at times hushed and at others brimming with passion. The role came to him serendipitously, he offers. He had just left New York, where his career in Broadway musical theatre (“Rent,” Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” for which he won the Barrymore Award) had flourished. But the death of his grandfather, along with other compelling events, caused him to re-examine his purpose, precipitating his move to Portland. His acquaintance with musical supervisor Ian Eisendrath led to being offered a role in what was then a workshop for the play, which was written by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Heinhas. “He [Eisendrath] told me, ‘We don’t know who you’re playing and we don’t have a script yet, but everyone’s a principal.’ Without hesitating I said yes,” Hicks laughs.

Taking on the role in the play’s formative stage was a challenge and a blessing to the actor. While each of the characters is based on real people, Hicks feels fortunate in having the opportunity to create his character from the ground up. “My character is based on a person who is white,” the actor says, “but I wanted to explore him being obviously black. What was great was to have a director who got it,” he reflects. The dichotomy of a blue collar New York African American man who lands in a predominantly white town with people being kind and generous made sense to Hicks. Initially Bob is on his guard, not sure what to make of the easy benevolence of the residents, who offer him tea in their back yards where they gather for barbeques. And so with humor and pathos, Bob’s character arcs, under Hicks’ insightful portrayal, “as a man who is initially filled with anxiety and fear and leaves embracing these people, with hope and the feeling that life is best lived unafraid and the knowledge that there is still unconditional kindness in our world.”

The play is truly an ensemble piece, the veteran actor says, with all of the cast and creative team bonded intimately, and the connection translates to audiences throughout the country. Performances in Seattle, Washington, DC, Toronto, and a return to Gander have inspired rousing standing ovations, he says, “with people in tears, or they are laughing or hugging someone they don’t know, because we all know where we were at that time. We’ve had people come multiple times, people who have lost family members and feel the need to see it. These people transformed and moved me. We never feel like we are performing or putting on a show, which makes this different from the classic musical, where you go to be entertained. Here you are going to experience something authentically true. You will be entertained but in a different way.”

For Hicks, this sacred transformation begins with director Christopher Ashley. “Chris knows how to create and draw true authenticity from his performers and for the other artists who form the creative team. He creates a world where the artists make it look so easy to be real and authentically true.”

The show,” he continues, “is not a diversion or an escapist piece. It just reminds you of the strength of who we are as human beings and all that we are capable of doing for the good of others.” And as the show continues its momentous journey from San Diego to Broadway, it serves as a balm in these politically turbulent times, a work that can help people understand their journey and help us all to understand each other. And certainly now, more than ever, we need that reminder.

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