It might be an unlikely topic for an award-winning Broadway musical, but Come From Away tells the story of a tiny town in Newfoundland that welcomed thousands of stranded airline passengers on September 11, 2001.
“It’s pretty special. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire career,” says Q. Smith, an Omaha native who is currently starring in the production—in her adopted home of New York City, at a theater located only a few miles from where terrorists crashed passenger planes into the twin towers of the former World Trade Center.
“You know, it’s rare to do a show [about an event] you lived through,” says Smith, who was living in Queens on 9/11. She was heading to a callback audition when her roommate stopped her from getting on the subway. Seventeen years later, she’s on Broadway telling a different story from that day about Hannah, another woman who lives in Queens.
In 2001, Smith, whose given name is Quiana, had already traveled a long way from the days of performing with her family at Salem Baptist Church in Omaha. She discovered musical theater when two other African-American girls—a detail she says is important—at Omaha North High School introduced her to show tunes.
“Hey, what kind of music is this?” she remembers asking.
The girls gave cassette tapes of Broadway soundtracks to Smith, and she discovered Les Misérables. She says her family got tired of hearing her sing “I Dreamed a Dream” over and over again.
“I found out [Les Misérables] was coming on tour to Omaha, and I freaked out,” Smith says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the best day of my life!’”
It was the first Broadway show she experienced at the Orpheum. After seeing it, she was hooked on musical theater.
“I don’t remember the show. I just remember the feeling,” Smith says.
In 2006 she was cast as a “swing,” an understudy who covers several roles, in a revival of Les Misérables. The first Broadway touring show she saw became her first Broadway role as a performer.
The road to that milestone wasn’t a direct or easy journey, but she was persistent and eager to learn.
“I have strong faith, and everything happens for a reason,” Smith says, reflecting on her path to success.
The summer before her senior year of high school, Smith was angling to get a car. Her parents insisted she work for it. Pat Metoyer, the owner of Simple Simon’s Preschool and Daycare, knew her from church and asked if Smith would be interested in teaching drama to the pre-K students at the daycare. Smith says she didn’t exactly feel qualified for the job, but she also really wanted that car.
Teaching the children dance, drama, poetry, and sign language proved to be an empowering experience for her and for her students. It’s also where she got her stage name. The 4- and 5-year-olds couldn’t pronounce “Quiana.” They shortened her name to “Miss Q.,” and it stuck.
The daycare serves children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, but seeing growth in some of the underprivileged students was life-changing for Smith.
“Let me do anything I can to save them with this power of art,” Smith thought to herself following an encounter with a grateful mother.
It was the genesis of another aspect of her career: teaching and art therapy. Nowadays, Smith not only teaches master classes and workshops for theater students, she also conducts programs in comprehensive and restorative art therapy. Inspired by her late brother, who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, Smith dreams of providing an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system—one that engages and heals troubled youth through the power of the arts.
Following high school, Smith continued her education in the theater department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and participated in the local theater scene. Originally, she auditioned for some of the most selective theater programs around the country, but says she wasn’t experienced enough to compete with teens who were already seasoned performers.
“UNO actually has a great theater program,” Smith says. “I was introduced to Professor Doug Paterson, one of my favorite professors. He was always about social justice and social justice theater.”
She says that UNO made her world a little bigger and furthered her ambition to make the world a better place, but she still wanted more specific training. Smith auditioned again for some of the country’s most prestigious theater programs. Ultimately, Ithaca College in Upstate New York was the only theater school to offer her a spot.
“It was perfect for me. For my personality and my learning,” Smith says, noting that she and another young woman were the first black female students to graduate from the college’s musical theater program. A few years later, Smith broke another casting barrier.
Following roles in regional theater, national tours, and that dream job in Les Miz, Smith became the first African-American actress cast as a lead character in Mary Poppins. She says the supporting role of the antagonist, Miss Andrew, is now regularly played by curvy women of color with natural hair.
These days Broadway audiences can see her in Come From Away playing Hannah, a character based on an older Irish woman who lives in Queens. Smith plays the character as a black woman, but she says she was able to spend time with the real-life Hannah, who has seen the show and given it her seal of approval. Playing a living person comes with a level of responsibility that doesn’t exist with a fictional character.
“It’s lovely. I love it. It’s really been a great challenge,” Smith says. “Something that you lived through, that you went through…it’s something else because you have to bring a full heart and mind to it instead of your jazz hands.”
Smith was performing in Arkansas when she received a call to audition for Come From Away. The musical was opening at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, often a first stop before shows head to Broadway. It took two years of regional performances, gaps in work, and lean contracts before that Broadway production finally happened.
“This has been the best year of my life,” says Smith, who also got married this summer. “I wake up in the morning and I’m just so grateful.”
Gratitude and humility are evident when Smith speaks about the opportunities she’s had, particularly when she reflects on the impact of her current production.
“To remember that there were these people in Newfoundland who took in complete strangers,” Smith says as she explains the significance of the story of the small Canadian town of Gander that welcomed 7,000 stranded airline passengers. “To be able to tell this story at this time means a lot to people.”
Visit comefromaway.com for more information about the Broadway musical featuring Q. Smith. A touring production of Come From Away will play in Omaha at the Orpheum Theater on March 27-31, 2019.
Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information about the Omaha performance.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.