YQX: Where Roles of a Lifetime Take Off

By Kelli B. Grant '04, January 31, 2019
IC alumni Q. Smith ’00 and Caesar Samayoa ’97 star in the Broadway musical “Come from Away.”

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 6,579 airline passengers found their flights diverted to and grounded for days in an unlikely place: the remote town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada.   

For actors Q. Smith ’00 and Caesar Samayoa ’97, telling the real-life stories of those travelers — and the locals who hosted them — through the Tony Award–winning musical “Come from Away” has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

“We don’t call it a 9/11 story,” says Smith. “It’s definitely a 9/12 story.”

Confirms Samayoa: “Because of that horrific act, that tragedy, there was so much human kindness happening all over the world. This story emphasizes that. It really is one of those shows that has changed our lives.”

Getting to this point has been a long, multi-legged journey for the Ithaca College grads — and there’s no sign either will stop racking up the miles anytime soon.

OMA to ITH

“I started performing at church,” says Omaha native Smith. “I would do all the Easter and Christmas plays. I sang in the church choir — never soloed, I didn’t have that great of a voice — but I enjoyed it.”

Smith also performed in the community with her brother and cousin, reciting poetry written by famous African-American poets and singing gospel songs. But it wasn’t until she got to high school that she discovered musical theatre.

“It’s nice to get [a role] from the ground up. Every actor wants that. That’s the dream, is creating a role, putting your stamp on it.”

Q. Smith ’00

“These two girls would sing show tunes in my choir class. They introduced me to ‘Les Misérables,’ ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Miss Saigon,’” Smith says. “I lived for that music. Then I went to go see ‘Les Mis’ when it came through town,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ It was my a-ha moment.”

Smith’s late interest put her behind when it came to auditioning for college musical theatre programs. “I was pretty green,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t get accepted anywhere.”

So she studied drama at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, learning as much as she could about the business and honing her skills through community theatre. During her sophomore year, an audition landed her acceptance as a transfer student to Ithaca College.

“Ithaca was the only school that accepted me out of probably about 15 to 20 schools I auditioned for over three years,” she says. “They were the only ones, and thank God. Ithaca changed my life,” Smith says. “It’s really the people who made my experience — the professors, the students — my world really expanded. It’s a hard program, but it brought out the best of me.”

EWR to ITH

Samayoa credits his parents, who came to New York City from Guatemala, for introducing him to theatre.

“We didn’t know much about the arts, Broadway, any of that,” he says — but they wanted him to have those experiences. A family trip to see Sandy Duncan in the Broadway revival of “Peter Pan,” when Samayoa was in elementary school, became a pivotal experience. “I immediately knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” he says. “I’ll never forget it.”

Growing up in New York City and northern New Jersey, Samayoa sought out any kind of performing opportunity he could find. But when it came time to set a course for college, he ended up at Bucknell University to study international relations and Japanese.

“It’s funny; it never even occurred to me that [acting] was something I could study,” he says. Then he realized that all his extracurricular activities still focused on performing arts. So Samayoa researched and auditioned for theatre programs during his freshman year, ultimately landing on Ithaca College.

“My training at Ithaca set me up perfectly for the diverse and challenging — and frankly really amazing — experience of theatre that I’ve had.”

Caesar Samayoa ’97

“There was something about transferring into this program that was amazing because I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had this drive to get as much from the program as possible.”

Like Smith, Samayoa says the people were the most influential part of his Ithaca experience: “My teachers really strived to introduce me and my fellow classmates to as many different techniques as possible and put everything in our hands to run with it,” he says. “My training at Ithaca set me up perfectly for the diverse and challenging — and frankly really amazing — experience of theatre that I’ve had.”

ITH to JFK

That training paid off quickly for both Samayoa and Smith.

“I graduated, I got to New York, and I went to an open call for ‘Shakespeare’s R&J,’ which [class of 1992] Ithaca alumnus Joe Calarco directed,” Samayoa says. “He cast me in the show.”

Smith returned to Omaha to take a job touring with renowned Omaha Theatre Company for Young People, with an aim of saving money for a move to New York.

“Probably around Thanksgiving, I got this jolt of energy, and I was like, ‘You know what: I’m going to New York,’” she says. “So I did. I bought a one-way ticket. I just had to get there.”

On her flight, she circled four prospective auditions in trade publication Backstage. “I slept on my friend’s couch for a few hours, woke up, and went to those auditions — and I booked all four of them,” she says.

Her pick: “Smokey Joe’s Café” starring Gladys Knight. “I didn’t have a cell phone, so I had to call my parents collect and say, ‘Guess what? I just booked my first job!’” Smith says.

“I lost friends from school in the towers. So I turned it down, and my agent said, ‘Would you please just read the script?’ I remember sitting in my living room just rabidly reading. Turning the last page, I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get in this show, but I need to do this show.’”

Caesar Samayoa ’97

Smith and Samayoa say they have been fortunate to work regularly. “Come from Away,” naturally, stands out for both. Smith also calls out highlights including a Boston run as the understudy for Aida in the eponymous musical and productions with Transcendence Theatre Company in Sonoma, California.

Samayoa says his most memorable opportunities include “Love’s Labors Lost” for Shakespeare in the Park. “There’s something about doing Shakespeare under the stars in New York City at the Delacorte Theater for 2,000 people every night in this place that has so much history behind it,” he says. “So that’s kind of iconic for me.”

JFK to SAN

“Come from Away” wasn’t initially an opportunity either Samayoa or Smith — both of whom were in the city on 9/11 — thought they wanted. 

“I said, ‘Absolutely not. Exploring 9/11 in any shape, way, or form is too personal for me,’” Samayoa recalls. “I lost friends from school in the towers. So I turned it down, and my agent said, ‘Would you please just read the script?’ I remember sitting in my living room just rabidly reading. Turning the last page, I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get in this show, but I need to do this show.’”

Smith was in Arkansas doing a regional production of “Mary Poppins,” following her Broadway run in the musical, when her agent reached out about “Come from Away.” “It’s nice to get [a role] from the ground up,” Smith says. “Every actor wants that. That’s the dream, is creating a role, putting your stamp on it.”

“Oftentimes as actors, we portray characters that are fictional, imaginary, made-up, or over the top, and this is set and based in reality. It’s very challenging, and it’s something that every actor strives to do, to be honest in their work. It’s difficult, because you can get your own emotions tied up in it.”

Q. Smith ’00

The venue — La Jolla Playhouse in California — proved as big a draw. “If a show is going to La Jolla, there’s a good chance it’ll end up on Broadway,” she says.

Neither Smith nor Samayoa knew the other had been cast until, by happenstance, they ended up seated next to each other on the same flight to California to start rehearsals.

SAN to JFK (via SEA, IAD, and YYZ)

Smith and Samayoa stayed with “Come from Away” through its La Jolla run and went with the musical as it traveled to cities including Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. It opened on Broadway in February 2017.

“Q. and I happen to play the two characters who are New Yorkers,” Samayoa says. One of his characters, Kevin J., is half of a gay couple (both named Kevin). Samayoa also plays Ali, a Muslim chef ostracized by his fellow passengers. Smith plays Hannah, whose son is a New York City firefighter.

The actors say knowing that the story is based on real events and real people they have met, and having their own 9/11 connections, requires approaching the piece with sensitivity.

“Oftentimes as actors, we portray characters that are fictional, imaginary, made-up, or over the top, and this is set and based in reality,” Smith says. “It’s very challenging, and it’s something that every actor strives to do, to be honest in their work. It’s difficult, because you can get your own emotions tied up in it,” she says.

The audience reactions — not just in New York City but everywhere “Come from Away” has performed — have been an especially rewarding part of being involved in the show, Samayoa says.

“The stage door lines afterward are unbelievable,” he says. “It’s not about, ‘Oh my gosh, you were great in this show.’ People want to say thank you so much for telling this story. Or people want to tell us their 9/11 story, or say now they have a different version of that day in their head.”