Arlene Duncan is one of those people you like the instant you meet them. She has such an engaging warmth about her that within a few minutes of chatting, you feel she has known you all her life… that your interview is merely a couple of old friends catching up on what’s been happening since they last got together.
We met for lunch at the Upper Beach Café for the purpose of promoting Duncan’s latest project, the musical drama Caroline, or Change, at the Berkeley Street Theatre in the new year, but our conversation wandered all over the place… as it might with an old friend.
Arlene Duncan is a multi-talented actor, singer, and entertainer most recently recognizable as Fatima Dinssa, the owner-operator of Fatima’s Café on the hugely popular CBC hit series, Little Mosque on the Prairie. The series has just wrapped up filming its sixth and final season, and suddenly Duncan has found herself out of work from one project, and right into a new production. Is that lucky or what?
“I’ve learned not to say ‘no’,” Duncan tells me. “And things work themselves out. I’ve wanted to get back to doing more musical theatre, and they [Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre] wanted me to do this for awhile. They called me and asked me to come in and read.”
It’s been this reluctance to say no, combined with her prodigious talent, that has kept Arlene Duncan working consistently since she graduated from Sheridan College’s Musical Theatre Program several years ago. She has been a regular on Degrassi: The Next Generation, appeared in Flashpoint, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Being Erica, and as Principal Mooser on Wingin’ It for the Family Channel. She has done voice-overs for many television commercials for companies such as McDonald’s, Pepsi, Hostess, and Toyota, as well as the cartoons Bobo & Kipi, and Franklin the Turtle. She has recorded for A&M and Warner Music, and received the Vocalist of the Year Award from the Canadian Black Music Awards. And she has toured Bosnia-Herzegovina, Labrador – and her favourite, the Arctic – entertaining Canadian troops.
The six seasons Arlene Duncan has spent on Little Mosque on the Prairie has been a wonderful experience for her, if at first she wasn’t sure how it would go.
“I had never done a role like Fatima before,” Duncan said. “I said to the producers, ‘What about me do you see in her?’” As Duncan explained, the role of Fatima was originally to be about a Somali Muslim woman, but she managed to convince the writers to change her to a Nigerian Muslim woman.
“I felt much more comfortable with this,” she said. “I approached the role as if I were taking an acting class. I watched several Nollywood films [apparently the Nigerian film industry, or Nollywood as it’s called, is the third largest in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood] to get the accent right, and I learned so much more about the Nigerian people and their culture. I could ground her with other women I knew.”
Duncan recalled how the cast and crew got along so well on set that “it was as if we were married.” When they went out to film in Saskatchewan they would take over an entire hotel.
“Zarqa [Zarqa Nawaz, the Creator, Writer and Consulting Producer of Little Mosque] is so down to earth,” Duncan said. “She is basically telling her own story.” Duncan is proud to find that the role of Fatima has become such a role model for other immigrant women in Canada. “They relate to her as if she’s their aunt,” she says. Little Mosque on the Prairie appears in more than 80 countries around the world, and has won numerous awards. It will be sad when the show comes to an end. Duncan herself has realized that a big part of her creative life has come to an abrupt end.
“The last few days on set I started taking photos of everything I could,” she said, and hauled out her iPad to show me how many she had taken. It was page after page. Then she stopped scrolling suddenly, and opened a photo of a chrome metal kitchen/bar stool with a bright orange plastic seat, and turned the iPad to me.
“This is the famous ‘stool of insanity’,” she said, laughing. “When they designed the set, they decided that Fatima wouldn’t stand in her café all day… that she would need a stool to sit on every now and then. Thing is, I have never sat on it once in the six years we’ve filmed the show… and yet it’s still there behind the counter. The film crew have to constantly move their cumbersome cameras around this ugly thing, but they won’t take it away. I had to have a photo of it!”
Arlene Duncan’s new project, Caroline, or Change, is somewhat of a departure from her role of Fatima. The critically acclaimed, award-winning musical drama, first staged on Broadway in 2004, is the story of Caroline, an African-American maid to a Southern Jewish family in Louisiana during the tumultuous period of the early 1960s. The family – especially the young boy, Noah – is dealing with the emotional and economical struggles following the death of Noah’s mother, Mrs. Gellman. As Duncan explained, Caroline becomes “the one constant in the young boy’s life.” But Caroline wants no part of this. She is a single mother with young children of her own that she has to go home to each night.
“Her children see their lives ahead of them very differently than Caroline does,” Duncan says. The 60s, the death of JFK, the budding Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King, are all causing Caroline’s world to change much more rapidly that she can keep up with. Duncan explains it best when she says of her character’s part in the play, “These are the shoulders that we stand on.” Caroline is a steady, strong woman who grounds her children – and Noah – and allows them the means to grow themselves.
That phrase “these are the shoulders that we stand on” has become somewhat a mantra in Duncan’s life as well. Her father is a fifth-generation Canadian, while her mother is from Jamaica.
“They were both hoping that I would go into a profession of some sort,” Duncan recalled. “The idea of me becoming an entertainer would have upset them, so I went off to Sheridan College. At least I was going to college.” Some of her influential shoulders include Diana Ross, Salome Bey, and especially Melba Moore, who began her performing career in the musical Hair in 1967. “When I saw her doing things I liked, it was a big inspiration to me,” said Duncan.
Rehearsals have yet to officially begin for Caroline, or Change, but Duncan said she has been working with the musical director, running over the music, and practising vocal exercises in preparation. She said that rehearsals begin two days after Christmas, so it’s going to scuttle any plans she may have had to spend the holidays with family in Jamaica. But she will still be cooking the big traditional turkey dinner here in her Beach/Riverdale home, and making her family’s favourite ginger cookies.
Caroline, or Change runs at the Berkley Street Theatre (downstairs) from Jan. 21 through to Feb. 12. For ticket information, show times, and more information call the box office at 416-368-3110, or visit www.actingupstage.com.