Last week, US President Donald Trump had to choose – accept an invitation from Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to see the hit new Canadian musical Come From Away or take the advice of his chief strategist Steve Bannon and visit the grave of the spiritual father of American populists, Andrew Jackson.
In the end, he heeded Bannon’s advice. (Perhaps he also remembered Vice President Mike Pence’s chilly reception at Hamilton.) But his daughter and close confidante Ivanka Trump and his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley joined Trudeau for the Broadway show, which is based on a true story about a small town in Canada that hosted thousands of foreigners for a few days in 2001.
Ms Trump described it on her Facebook page as “a moving tribute to our international community coming together after 9/11.” Before the performance, Trudeau told the audience that the play shows “what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times.”
I saw the production a few days after Ms Trump, Haley, and Trudeau. Seated in the theater, I found myself asking how the two influential members of the US administration had really reacted.
Come From Away takes place over the course of a few days following 9/11 when US airspace was closed and thousands of Americans and others were stranded in Canada, dependent on the goodwill of the inhabitants of Gander, Newfoundland.
It also touches on cruelty and prejudice. At one moment, a Muslim man – a master chef at an international hotel – is humiliated with a painfully thorough strip search, because he is Egyptian and practices Islam.
At a time when Ms Trump’s father continues to promote a contentious ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, above all those fleeing the horrors of Syria’s civil war, I wondered if she and Haley felt a pang of guilt for supporting an administration that continues to traffic in xenophobia and fight for its indefensible travel ban in the courts.
I’d like to think they identified, for at least a few minutes, with those residents of Gander who fed and housed the strangers from the US and elsewhere for five unusual days in September 2001 – a brief moment when the shoe was on the other foot and it was US citizens who found themselves dependent on the kindness of Canadian strangers.