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Music with a mission: Troupe to perform show with message about refugee crisis

Act Up Theater's Cabaret for a Cause combines pop and show tunes with refugee stories from new Americans (front row, left to right) Akberet Tewelde, Syntishe Nsango, Masoka Mukuchagrade, (back row, left to right) Muhend Abakar, Kausila Mongar and Aline Uwase, pictured with their teacher, Leah Juelke (second from left, standing). Sisters Natalie Shaw (second from right, standing) and Jenny Shaw (far right, standing) helped organize the show. Special to The Forum

FARGO—After the progressive theater troupe Act Up revealed it wouldn't have a production last summer, the powers that be got together to come up with something to hold them over until next summer's show.

They wanted an event that would be fun, but still represent the troupe's social justice mission. They settled on a performance that would help bring attention and aid to helping immigrants resettle in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

About 20 Act Up alumna will perform popular songs and show tunes on the theme of home while a handful of new Americans share their stories in a Saturday night production called Cabaret for a Cause.

"We wanted to make sure this is something unique," says Natalie Shaw, one of the chief organizers of the show. "It's not just a cabaret. It's going towards something that is incredibly important now."

Shaw, a 2015 graduate from Davies High School, is now studying theater, journalism and film studies at the University of Minnesota.

"The global refugee crisis is at vast proportions and it can be terrifying with how limiting the White House is to admitting refugees. It's important we see the human side of these refugee students telling their story at this cabaret," she says.

Closer to home, Shaw singles out Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn's vocal concerns that new Americans place undue burden on civic resources. Half of the ticket sales will be donated to Lutheran Social Services' new Americans refugee resettlement program and the other half will go toward the as yet unannounced 2018 Act Up summer musical.

"It can be really easy to think of the refugee crisis as just numbers and to think less of that and push that aside," Shaw says. "But to see these students and hear from them at this event, to hear what they've gone through to get to America and what they're doing now to live some sort of normal life an be incredibly moving. I hope that's what the audience will get out of it."

"It pulls dearly on my heart as a teacher — the misperception of the immigrant community in Fargo-Moorhead — and it's difficult to read the news and watch Lutheran Social Services take a hit," says Act Up founder and director, Rebecca Meyer-Larson. "My experience with the immigrant community in Fargo-Moorhead is some of the most grateful, kind, hard-working people I've ever taught."

An English, speech and theater at Moorhead High School, Meyer-Larson says she's witnessed a lot of ignorance and prejudice over the immigration issue.

Meyer-Larson and Shaw got another teacher involved with the project.

Fargo South High School language arts instructor Leah Juelke brought in five students and one graduate to read from their immigration stories. Her work in getting new American students to share their life stories in the book their stories from the book "Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from a Fargo High School," earned her the distinction of North Dakota's Teacher of the Year for 2018.

"We couldn't have done it without her," Shaw says.

Meyer-Larson hopes bringing new Americans to local theater stages increases the diversity of local theater and reflects Act Up's mission to help cultivate a more compassionate community.

"That's an underserved population when it comes to artistry in our community. I would like the arts, especially the theatrical arts in the Fargo-Moorhead community to reflect the actual citizens of Fargo-Moorhead," she says. "The only way we're ever going to get more young artists on our stage is if they can see themselves in the performers that are there."

Other collaborators on Cabaret for a Cause include Pennie Fike and Natalie's twin sister, Jenny. The Shaws will sing The Civil Wars song "From the Valley". Other numbers on the theme of home to be performed will include "She's Leaving Home" by The Beatles and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

Other Act Up alumni performing include Karina Twedt, Noah Johnson, Jake Stibbe, Noelle McVicar, Izzy Larson, Signe Johnson, Saeros Avende, Alex Durow, Natalie Shea, Adam Bakken, Grant Skrove, Maddy Timm, Jack Mullally, Devon Manney, Matt Tinjum, Conor Lee, and Jo Marie Fike.

"It's so fun to see young performers brought up in the Fargo-Moorhead area become the leaders, the future directors, the future leaders. My hand in this is pretty light in this," Meyer-Larson says. "These are passionate artists who have developed their voices and are using their voices for common good and that's the best gift I could possibly ask for this time of year."

If You Go

What: Cabaret for a Cause

When: 7 p.m., Saturday

Where: The STage at Island Park, 333 4th St., S., Fargo

Info: Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door and $50 for VIP, https://www.brownpapertickets.com/.

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