Love amid hate: 'Aida' cast inspired by New Americans
MOORHEAD — When Moorhead High School opens its musical production of Disney's "AIDA" tonight, you'll no doubt see dozens of talented students singing and dancing their hearts out. But what you won't see is the inspiration behind their performances — two visitors who helped the young performers feel what it's like to survive heartbreak, tragedy and war, much like the characters they portray on stage.
"AIDA," written by Elton John and Tim Rice, tells the tale of a forbidden love between an enslaved Nubian princess and an Egyptian soldier. According to Director Rebecca Meyer-Larson, together their devotion transcends the differences between their warring nations.
"This is the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate," Meyer-Larson says.
While Meyer-Larson praises the cast for its hard work and dedication, she also noticed these mostly middle-class American kids having a hard time expressing the emotion of lyrics in songs such as "The Gods Love Nubia," an anthem sung by slaves about surviving hardships in captivity while holding onto hope for their homeland.
"In the story, the Nubian people had been ripped away from their homes," Meyer-Larson says. "That is so far from (the cast's) reality. I had to ask them 'What's going on in this song?' "
To help the students deepen their understanding of the show's message, Meyer-Larson invited two special guests to share their experiences during a presentation at rehearsal.
Cani Anan, originally from Somalia, sought refuge in the United States after escaping his war-torn country. An avid and talented soccer player, Anan was beaten, tortured and ripped away from his family when the militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab ruled that playing and watching the sport was prohibited. With his life in danger, Anan made the trip to the United States. He now works as a custodian for Moorhead schools and sends half his pay home to his family left in Somalia.
"Cani is someone who loves both of his countries," says former co-worker Erika Yoney, who brought Anan in speak to the cast. "Back in Somalia, he was a valiant fighter in trying to improve the lives of those around him. Now that he's here , he continues to help others — supporting new Americans. He is an example of how loving and open the Somali people and the Muslim faith is."
Nidar Salman, who now works as a paraprofessional at Moorhead High School, came to America after Iraqi Pres.Saddam Hussein forced her family to leave their village because they were Kurds. She survived bombings of her school and watched as thousands of Kurds were killed in chemical attacks in 1988. Her family married her off at the age of 15 and left her in a Turkish refugee camp, where she and fellow Kurds were served poisoned food. She survived and came to America to build a new life.
The students sat silent — and nearly motionless — as they heard Anan and Salman's stories of survival and hope as both speakers shared similar messages about gratitude and growth.
"You have everything," Anan started. "Your transportation to school is free, your teachers are nice. I want to tell you guys it's your time to go forward."
Salman added, "You are all so lucky. You are growing up in a free country. You can read and wear what you want. You need to take advantage and make something of that."
Following the presentations, the students left the choir room and quietly walked back into the theater to talk about what they had heard.
"Hearing their personal stories and their family's, I could put myself in their shoes with my own family — I can't even imagine what it was like to go through all of that," says senior Katie Kasper.
The students said they realized man's inhumanity to man isn't just fiction that they perform on stage.
"The story is really old, but it's not dead," says senior Luke Seidel. "We saw that with both of them. We haven't escaped that 4,000 years ago or four years ago."
Meyer-Larson was pleased the students also understood that even at a time of great turmoil, hate and change, a love of family and a desire to connect with each other is universal.
"Theater is truth. We always seek to tell the truth," Meyer-Larson says. "They know their lines. They know their dance steps. They need to understand the truth to tell it."
If You Go
What: Disney's "AIDA"
Where: Moorhead High School — 2300 Fourth Ave. S., Moorhead
When: 7 p.m. on Nov. 10-11, 17-18, 24-25 and 2 p.m. on Nov. 12 and 19
Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online at MoorheadSchools.org/tix or by calling (218) 284-2255.