Compassion on stage

“Come From Away” is a hit Broadway play. Its script is based on the remarkable true stories of residents of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. They hosted 6,700 unexpected visitors from the sky when their commercial airliners were grounded there for a week in the aftermath of 9/11. “Come From Away” is also being performed by several theater companies throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

In the midst of great music, acting, singing, and choreography, audiences witness a surprising and heartfelt tribute to The Salvation Army. They see Salvationists in response to the 9/11 crisis, house, feed, and comfort busloads of world travelers who are confused and worried about their futures.

In a tense scene, a driver takes them down a darkened road to a Salvation Army camp deep in the woods. An English–speaking Salvationist notices an African woman holding a Bible close to her heart. He asks her to turn to a scripture. Her husband stands carefully by.

Although the written words in her Bible are foreign to the islander, and his spoken words are foreign to the Africans, the couple nonetheless clearly understand his earnest message when he points to Philippians 4:6. It reads, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

In an instant, a spirit of calm descends upon the stage and audience as these actors suddenly bring down national, racial, cultural, and linguistic barriers that typically get in the way. They speak different tongues, but trust in the same God.

Bigger than me

“I’ve done theater my whole life,” said Danielle Kamilah Thomas, who plays the African woman. “But this show changes so much about me as an artist and as a person because it is so much bigger than that.”

Thomas, who in the play also stars as Hanna O’Rourke, mother of a fallen New York City firefighter, said, “People wait at the stage door to say ‘hi’ or for me to sign their Playbill, which is common after theater shows. But it’s different with this show. A lot of people always want to give me a hug because they feel for my character’s journey; they are overwhelmed. People relate to my role in particular because they can feel the loss that comes from the story. We can’t tell this story without talking about the tragic part of it.

“But, even with that being said, I still end up walking away feeling uplifted by the people’s compassion. People just want to say, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you!’ They also say how much the show touched them.”

Most satisfying role

Since graduating cum laude in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Howard University, Thomas has been an international stage and screen performer. She’s best known for her role in Broadway’s award–winning “Avenue Q,” which won a Tony Award for best musical. She has also played in “Hair” (European tour), “Seussical,” “Cinderella,” “Floorplay,” “Big River,” “Little Shop of Horrors” (Germany), and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (Germany). One of her first film credits was for a part in Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn.”

However, “Come From Away” is by far her most satisfying role to date. “I always feel so hypocritical when I say, ‘you’re welcome’ to people after the show because I really want to say, ‘thank you too.’ I feel it is a gift for me to tell this story; it is a gift to get to see people so touched by the story. It feels so much bigger than me as an artist.” Part of the reason why acting in “Come From Away” feels so much bigger than herself is because of her personal experience with The Salvation Army.

Back to Bushwick

“Life is so strange,” said Major Wilfred Samuel. He and his wife Major A. Margaret Samuel were corps officers of the Brooklyn (Bushwick) N.Y., Corps in the mid 1980s when young Danielle (known by her family and friends as Kamilah) and her sister Chadhil first “came from away” and stepped into a Home League meeting with her mom and grandmother.

Major Wilfred Samuel said, “Naturally, my wife and I related to the adults. Those two girls were there because of their grandmother and mother. When they did come, they related to other children, and the adults related to other adults. So, it’s rather interesting that, after all these years, Kamilah can go back to that period of her life, as far as we are concerned.”

Initially, Thomas’ apprehension was that she and her sister would have to spend Thursdays with a group of older women. However, once the girls arrived, they soon realized that their fears were far from the truth. In fact, they shared the room with a beautiful gathering of loving people.

“It was always a great place where we went to eat food and hang out and play games in the game room,” Thomas remembers. “I would be there all Thursday. It wasn’t boring to hang out with the older ladies! We went on a picnic too.”

Thanks to Major Margaret Samuel, Thomas’ interest in the corps deepened. “I loved Major Margaret Samuel so much. She was this amazing, loving woman who would hug me all the time! Captain Wilfred Samuel was a gentle giant.”

“When they had their son and daughter, I was a little jealous because now they had their own babies! The Samuels were so sweet and loving to us. I just remember the kindness of the people at The Salvation Army!”

Major Wilfred Samuel said, “So, this just shows you that you have to be so careful when you are dealing with children. We did not realize Kamilah was really absorbing The Salvation Army, so to speak.” Thomas’ experience at the Bushwick Corps also influences the work she does now.

The real deal

Thomas’ fascination with the Army became a valuable asset during the planning of “Come From Away.” In the process of formulating the story, script writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff interviewed many people who were part of that effort so they could translate actual statements and quotes into authentic dialogue. Even before the cast began rehearsing, they sat down, read the interviews, looked at actual photos, and discussed possible scenarios.

“I’ve enjoyed doing the show because it’s absolutely brilliant, and it’s absolutely true,” said Thomas. “Most of what we say is verbatim from interviews with people who were actually there, so it’s real. It feels good to share this story of love and compassion.”

General Brian Peddle and Commissioner Rosalie Peddle, international leaders of The Salvation Army, have seen the play twice and vividly remember the actual post 9/11 events. “We were in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when it happened,” she said.

“We were the divisional leaders and repeated the same effort there,” said the General. “We know all the places mentioned in ‘Come From Away.’ The couple who wrote the script did a masterful job. They picked up the essence of the story, they poked fun respectfully and purposefully, and still told the impactful story on people’s lives.”

A family affair

Thomas, whose dad died after a long battle with diabetes, said, “‘Come From Away’ is the story we’re trying to get out to the world, but internally, our ‘Come From Away’ family is also close on all levels—from the top producers to the crew.

“Kenny and Marlene Alhadeff (producers) had us at their home in Seattle. My mommy was there too. Their brother and sister–in–law visited the cast and reached out to me personally to say hello when we were in Boston. When my mom had emergency surgery, Marlene cried and encouraged me. She sent her regards and prayed for God’s continued healing. In New Orleans, they allowed my entire visiting family (15 of them) to join the cast party gathering after opening night. They’ve become more than just producers. This is more than just work and making money—it’s a family.

“Kenny would always speak to us as if he was an evangelist or an ambassador of compassion. He said the whole point of telling this story is to hopefully spread compassion and kindness so that people become more aware of doing that, even if it’s just offering a smile to someone.

Opening doors

“When a friend came to see the show in Philadelphia, she said when it was over, people stood to their feet, watched the band play, and just stayed in the room; they were overwhelmed with a feeling of just happiness and joy. They held doors open for one another and were just being helpful. We see this reaction all over the world.

“I’m honored to tell the story of Hanna O’Rourke and Kevin her son who gave his life with all those other first responders who died on 9/11. Jamie, Kevin’s daughter, texted me after attending a 9/11 memorial event.

“However, we don’t call it the 9/11 story because it’s really about what happens after it. We remember more than just the horror and tragedy—we remember so much more.”

by Warren L. Maye

On a warm and sunny day in 1988, General Eva Burrows spoke at the Salvation Army’s International Congress in Ocean Grove, N.J. As many as 7,000 Salvationists attended the meetings that weekend in the Great Auditorium.

A contingent of soldiers and friends from the Brooklyn (Bushwick), N.Y., Corps cheered the General on from a section of the balcony. Among that number was Inez “Mother” Bristol, a longtime member of the corps’ Home League. Today her granddaughter, Danielle Kamilah Thomas, is sharing the Salvation Army’s story of kindness and compassion on a different stage.

On the day of her graduation from Howard University in 2001, she said, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has been with me; my mom who has been my confidant, best friend, and support when I thought I couldn’t make it; and my friends and family who have come to see all of my shows and made me feel that I had people who were standing behind me.

“Those were the reasons why I felt that I had to make them proud and graduate from Howard on time, with honors, and with extra classes and all of that. I love you and I will make you proud.”