Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers provides healing
Satori Shakoor rushed down the steps of United Sound Systems, where as a kid she played the violin for Motown Records, and into a buzzing production crew.
The 62-year-old Detroiter dressed in a ruffled red hot top was ushered down another staircase and into a chair, where a makeup artist blanketed her with a plum cape. Filming for a new PBS documentary show, “Family Pictures USA,” was starting in 30 minutes, and the makeup artist was determined to powder her face before the cameras rolled.
Shakoor is a writer, singer, comedian, performance artist and 2017 Kresge Artist Fellowship winner. But most of all, she’s a storyteller.
“I come from a long line of storytelling. All these old black women from the South in my family — they were just so great,” she says, perched in the chair in the historic recording studio.
Her relatives would be impressed by the storytelling empire she’s built in Detroit. Shakoor is executive director of The Society for the Re-Institutionalization of Storytelling, a nonprofit she founded that produces the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers.
Similar to The Moth, which organizes live storytelling events nationwide, the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers invites anyone to tell a true story from the heart. The monthly shows at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History often have themes, like the next one July 21 titled, “Detroit 1967.” All are meant to inspire, uplift and bond the audience and storyteller.
“Storytelling is something you can do with one person or you could do it with a crowd,” Shakoor says, “but it’s a way to connect ourselves to each other, no matter our race, our creed, our color.”
In 2011, Shakoor was living in her sister’s home, struggling to survive as a standup comedian. One day, someone told her about a Moth storytelling contest at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit. A natural storyteller, she gave it a shot. And she won. Then she won second place at the national GrandSLAM and was asked to host Moth events in Ann Arbor.
She started flying around the country, telling stories in different places. While on stage in Boston, telling a story about losing her mother and then her son nine months later, she had an epiphany.
“As I told the story, I just experienced the audience,” she says. “I could hear a pen drop, and I experienced being heard — I mean, profoundly listened to. And I felt afterward when they applauded my journey, my struggle, I felt that somehow I was on the path to healing.”
When she returned home, Satori had a thought: “If storytelling could start a process of healing for me, what could it do for Detroit?”
Detroiters, she decided, just needed a platform to tell their stories.
Shakoor rented the small theater inside Lafayette Lofts where her sister lived and charged attendees 15 bucks. All 45 seats sold out, and the show ended with a standing ovation.
“That gave me the motivation to continue,” she says.
She moved to the Pangea Gallery across from Marygrove College and eventually the 317-seat African-American history museum theater.
Production manager Cheryl James — Shakoor’s road manager in the ’70s when she sang with The Brides of Funkenstein — says all shows have sold out this year.
“What we’re doing, in some instances, it’s life-saving,” says James, 69. “I think if you show up at one of our storytelling events, you’ll feel better about whatever it is that was troubling you.”
Everyone has a story
There’s no application if you want to tell a 10-12 minute story. Shakoor doesn’t even hold auditions.
“I know everybody has a story,” she says. “I’m a midwife and everybody’s got a story ready to be born, whether they want to or not. I just ask the questions that start the contractions that start that life, that story.”
Shakoor finds storytellers wherever she goes.
“I assault people at the sauna: ‘Do you want to tell a story?’ ” she says, only half joking.
She then listens and coaches the orators, honing the message and trimming the fat, much like an editor.
“The final product is really great, but for me, it’s that space between myself and the storyteller and hearing their pain, their tears, because they all cry,” she says. “Even the tough Marines.”
While many of the 300-plus storytellers in the last five years have shed tears, no two stories have been alike. Shakoor names a few of her favorites: The story of a former Jehovah Witness who saw his father murder his mother. The story of a 17-year-old girl who was raped by a close family member. The story of a transgender person who had been pulled over and harassed by the police. And the story of Dwight Stackhouse, a local poet who professed his love during a “love stories” theme.
“He made Detroit the object of his love,” Shakoor said. “... He’s presenting hope, and all we have to do is love her again and caress her again. I love that story.”
For “Detroit 1967,” Stackhouse will share another story about his experiences that year. Shakoor also found two sisters, Carolyn Colvard and Loretta Holmes, who were inside the blind pig when the raid occurred. The Rev. Gary Bennett and Detroit Elections Director Daniel Baxter will take the stage as well.
Shakoor was 12 during the riot and remembers sitting on the porch where she lived on Fischer between Vernor and Kercheval. She and her friends fawned over the national guardsmen stationed on the street.
“We were talking about, ‘I’m going to marry him when we grow up.’ We didn’t know that they were trying to keep us in,” she says. “We thought they were there to protect us, but they were there to manage a curfew. Twelve is a little bit innocent.”
Mustering courage to share
“Fifty-four years ago, it was a racist white woman and a Jamaican man got together — I know, weird combination. Anyway, they got together, and they had Stephanie Rose Rick, which is me.”
That’s how Gail Perry-Mason (born Stephanie Rose Rick) started her story for May’s “Hot Mama!” theme.
Perry-Mason, a financial coach, originally thought she’d talk about her kids, not her biological mother who left her at Women’s Hospital (now Hutzel Hospital) because she didn’t want a black baby. Yet telling that story was “like therapy,” she says.
“So many people came up afterward and gave me the biggest hug ever. It was a beautiful, beautiful experience,” she says, admitting she was nervous because she typically talks about finances, not personal matters. “Never in my wildest dreams had I ever done anything like that.”
It took a few years before Shakoor’s sister, Doreen Bethel, shared a story. The 61-year old has been involved in the production since she helped secure the first theater. This June afternoon, she’s joining her sister for the TV filming to share stories about growing up in Detroit in the ’60s.
But a few months ago, she took the stage to share her story about shedding weight. She wanted to lose weight through bariatric surgery, but when she went for the procedure, doctors discovered she had a diaphragmatic hernia and had to perform emergency surgery.
“The surgeon said I was a ticking time bomb. I could have just dropped dead anytime,” says Bethel, now 100 pounds lighter thanks to exercise.
Sharing your story helps you but also people you don’t know, she says.
“I never knew how many women would come up to me and relate to it,” Bethel says. “You may be going through something, but you’re not going through it alone. There’s so many other people who are experiencing what you're experiencing.”
James couldn’t agree more.
“Tales of woe, tales of happiness, joy,” she says. “There’s always something you can relate to.”
While she’s had an interesting career that includes a stint driving for The Temptation’s lead singer Dennis Edwards, she shared the story of how she battled cancer — three times.
“It stops you for a while,” James says, “but if you got any kind of fight in you, you’ll fight back.”
The stories continue
Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers is the name of a short story Shakoor wrote in 2009. In the story, people from all over the world gather to tell their secrets.
“If you have a story that’s not born, it dies with you,” Shakoor explains. “It’s like they say, ‘burning a library of knowledge.’ ”
Shakoor’s fictional story has, in a way, turned into reality. The nonprofit now holds storytelling workshops for local businesses, schools and organizations, and the mission is spreading globally.
“Her tagline is ‘transforming the world one story at a time,’ and that’s what’s happening,” Bethel says. “It’s touching all different parts of the country, all different parts of the world.”
In June, Shakoor received the Kresge Artist Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $25,000 prize for 18 artists and writers. Kresge Arts in Detroit Director Christina deRoos says Shakoor is “a real advocate for storytelling and the arts in Metro Detroit.”
“It’s absolutely exciting to see her receive this fellowship, which is intended boost her ability to pursue her own career,” deRoos says.
Shakoor plans to use the award to attend a leadership conference and promote the art, and benefits, of storytelling.
As she puts it, everyone “carries things around.”
“We hide things about ourselves,” she says, “and it’s not so much of a confession, but it’s a cleansing and saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m a human being at the end of the day. And isn’t it wonderful and glorious that I express myself this way?’ ”
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
315 E. Warren
8 p.m. July 21
Buy tickets for $25 at the door
or $20 at twistedtellers.org.