EL PASO by Michael Miller, directed by Phil Akin, with Kahmaara Armatrading, Amanda Brugel, David Collins, Lili Francks, Rothaford Gray, Jeff Jones, Kim Roberts and Satori Shakoor. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews September 29 at 7 pm, October 1-3 at 8 pm, opens October 4 and runs to October 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday and October 26 at 2 pm. $22-$30, Sunday pwyc-$22, previews $10. 416-504-9971.
Satori Shakoor always loved theatre. Trouble is, it didn't always love her back.You'd hardly know it from the expressive way she talks about Michael Miller's El Paso. "This is a play about choosing life, no matter whether you have five minutes or 50 years ahead of yourself."
She's passionate about playing Vivian, the lead role in a new work that deals with three generations of strong African-American women.
"And Vivian can only make that choice," Shakoor raises a fist of defiance, "by being present in the moment -- to love, hate and breathe, to be responsible for what she chooses."
But making the choice doesn't guarantee everything. It's taken a long time for Shakoor, for example, to get what she wants, creatively speaking.
She's had successes on TV and in concerts, films and comedy clubs, but it was always on the theatre stage that she wanted to impress. It started in a Detroit high school when she saw a performance of Lysistrata.
"I wanted that world more than anything, certainly more than sitting in a chair watching it," she says, her face lighting up with the memory. "But then I auditioned for The King And I, and the casting people laughed at me.
"Not because I was funny," continues the woman who's worked with black comic Kenny Robinson and shared a Gemini nomination for writing and performing the comedy series Thick And Thin. "They laughed because I sucked."
Shakoor tried dancing. No luck. She knew she could sing, though, so she majored in voice. A move to New York copped her a slot as one of the Brides of Funkenstein, a late-70s rock act and part of George Clinton's hugely popular Parliament/Funkadelic empire.
"There I was," she recalls, still surprised at the speed of the comet she rode, "up onstage at Madison Square Garden, touring Europe and the States, having people thrust programs into my face for autographs or asking me to touch their babies. It was unreal."
When the group collapsed in 1981, Shakoor decided to go back to school and study acting. A stint in a Los Angeles stand-up club proved that she could entertain an audience, but comedy didn't fully satisfy her.
"I wanted to work inside a character and tell a story, use that character to say something about the richness of life and at the same time share part of myself with the audience," offers Shakoor. Like several others in the El Paso company, she's a founding member of Obsidian Theatre.
In El Paso she gets centre stage as a 52-year-old woman with incurable cancer who tries to flee to a past that might hold some comfort for her. Vivian discovers, though, that ghosts and long-buried emotions must first be laid to rest.
El Paso is a show where worlds collide -- Vivian's life in 1988 Washington as the wife of a former military man and her young newlywed life in 1958 at her father's Texas home.
Shakoor looks the perfect 50s woman today, with a tight hairstyle and black-and-grey glasses flecked with silver.
Playwright Miller, winner of a Chalmers Award and author of an upcoming play about Nelson Mandela, is originally from the States. His dialogue, says Shakoor, captures the music of African-American speech.
"The style isn't like younger-black "yo, yo, yo' talk, but rather has a folksy back-porch-rocking-chair coziness."
But the comfortable tone can hide the emotional intensity, often linked with rage, that lurks beneath the words of these characters, people unable to realize the dreams they keep buried deep inside.
"I'm attracted to those things we hide within us," says Shakoor with a little smile. "We all protect our dreams in some way, not giving up on them." firstname.lastname@example.org