Paying It Forward with Come From Away/An Interview with Julie Johnson

By Cami Hancock

Last week, Wharton Center was extremely fortunate to present Come From Away during the 18th anniversary of 9/11. Come From Away is a musical that tells the true story of 7,000 passengers whose planes were diverted to the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. In the days that followed, what could have turned into mass chaos instead turned into a touching display of humanity as the people of Gander did everything they could to ensure the newly-arrived strangers felt safe and comfortable while all North American air space was shut down. No matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s safe to say that we were all in some way affected by the tragedies that occurred on September 11, 2001. Come From Away draws on that shared experience, and it is a piece of art so powerful that it is inspiring audiences to spread kindness in the world. Although unspeakable events took place on 9/11, Come From Away proves that kindness can and will emerge from humanity even in the darkest of times.

On Thursday, the Wharton Center staff teamed up with Come From Away company members and local media partners to conduct a Pay It Forward Day in honor of the kindness displayed by the people of Gander on 9/11. The Pay It Forward participants volunteered at six different locations in the community, including Okemos Community Church, the Delhi Fire Department, and the Refugee Development Center and worked together to create a positive change in the community.

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The Pay It Forward Participants

I also had the opportunity to talk with Julie Johnson, who plays Beula and others in the show. Listening to Julie talk about the show was incredibly moving; she makes it clear that she relishes getting to tell this story every night. Here’s what Julie had to say about her experience being in the company of Come From Away:

Q: How does it feel to perform in a show that you know is moving people nightly?

A: The other actors and I have talked about this: we’ve never been in a show that feels this important as far as its message and have the audience jump to its feet. We’re up there delivering the words and the stories of real people, and we’re so fortunate to be doing that. The audience responds to it so, so visually, and you just know that they were taken on a journey and their hearts were really grabbed. It’s also cathartic for people because for those of us that do remember 9/11, we all remember just how devastating it was. The fact that people lived on, many of them without their dear relatives, husbands, daughters, sons. We managed to get past it, but we’ll never forget it. The people who were killed… their sacrifice would be even more devastating if the people who left behind hadn’t continued and tried to make life better. That’s what these people did for the passengers: they made their lives better.

Q: What have you learned from playing your character Beulah?

A: Interestingly, I come from a family of teachers and Beulah is based on a couple of teachers in Gander. It was really more of me being able to bring the memories of my parents who taught school. They would come home and talk about what happened in their day with their kids. This takes place in Gander on the first day of school. The kids are so wild and not ready to be back from summer. And then everything changes: all those kids had to go home, and that school was turned into a place of shelter for several hundred people, along with all the other schools and other places. A lot of those kids actually, with their parents, came back to the school to give clothing and donate toys for kids who were on the planes. I would say, for me, it was me being able to bring part of my past and growing-up years into Beulah’s character, and being able to know her from the inside because I was raised by the same kind of people.

Q: What do you want audiences to walk away with when they see Come From Away?

A: I want them to walk away with the foremost thought of how far kindness goes in people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be big. It can be something small: opening a door, smiling and saying hello to someone you don’t know, thanking people. People should be thanked on a regular basis. Be kind to someone whose job is to bring you a meal or put your burger in a sack and hand it to you. Just say thank you and smile at them; that could make a huge difference in somebody’s day because you don’t know what someone has gone through before they’ve gotten to their job. Treat them like you would want to be treated.

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Meeting Julie Johnson (pictured right)

Cami Hancock is a Wharton Center intern and a junior at MSU, studying Arts and Humanities with a focus on writing and theatre.

Posted in Wharton Center News

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