Satori Shakoor and the power of telling true stories

Stories heal. They provoke. They reassure. 

When told in the intimate setting of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, they connect people and create community.

Drawn from a short story written by Satori Shakoor — a story that Shakoor at first felt she couldn’t tell — the “Secret Society” has grown from its first audience of 45 people to over 200 when shows sell out.

Shakoor, who produces the program, stresses that “twisted” is meant to push the edge of what is human and what is truth — channeling the power of human expression and binding people through understanding, empathy, and engagement.

At a recent performance, she told her audience that storytelling is the essence of what she calls “human healing.” It can be uplifting and soul-cleansing.

“It can transcend our differences,” says Shakoor. “It is possible to shift our consciousness. True stories move you from tears to laughter. That’s what human beings do.”

Detroit has been said to be a large small town. Shakoor’s society is no longer secret. In fact, it is becoming a sizable group.

Last year, The Secret Society won a $30,000 Knight Foundation grant. Since then it has become a nonprofit organization, and established a permanent home at the Wright museum, to which it donates a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales.

Shakoor is at home when she’s on stage. A performance artist and writer who has been a singer, comedian, and dramatic actor, Shakoor established the Obsidian Theatre Company in Toronto for which she still performs, and hosts Ann Arbor’s Moth Story SLAM.

She says she experienced an epiphany while telling one of her stories at a Moth Mainstage event in Boston. In the middle of the telling, she felt connected to the audience in a way she hadn’t before in other stage work. She realized that she could employ the art and ancient practice of communal storytelling in a way that would help heal her city.

Under the nonprofit Society for the Reinstitutionalization of Storytelling, Secret Society has become Shakoor’s creative and social platform. She’s hosted a storytelling show for the Student Advocacy Center in Ann Arbor and astorytelling workshop for Planned Parenthood in Flint.

“The Society of Twisted Storytellers is exactly what you see,” she says, “human beings coming out and telling true, personal stories on a preselected curatorial theme, a theme that encourages the storyteller to think about the story they want to tell. It can be abstract relationships or literal stories that people want to hide; twisted things about our humanity that are unspoken. They seem twisted because we’ve been quiet and secret. They gather energy that’s unnecessary and we’re judging ourselves suddenly.”

True stories “elevate” themselves over fiction, she says. People can distance themselves from fiction, but not from the soulful truth of personal experience. The performances can be intense. But there are also moments of humor. Shakoor links her guests through personal reflections on the evening’s theme. She also includes music and dance to enhance the artistic experience of the evening.

When Shakoor established the Secret Society, she was living in a friend’s basement while trying to find work in Detroit. Her performance career had taken her throughout the world, but she returned home to care for her son, who was injured in an automobile accident and later died. 

To an extent, the Secret Society’s programs are therapeutic — for the storyteller and listener.

“This is non-religious, nonpolitical. I believe that we heal each other with our stories. If we hear something uplifting and we laugh, laughter is an immediate health benefit. Not feeling alone helps you with your depression,” says Shakoor.

“In Detroit, there is this place where you can go that’s joyful. You can tell your story. You don’t have to be by yourself. You don’t have to hide. People hide some of their stuff. People tell me, ‘I don’t tell anyone about that.'”

The Secret Society has been described as a “tell all” show, but it’s not about being sensational.

“This is to tell specifically uplifting, thought-provoking, soul-cleansing stories that hope to aspire to transform and heal community, and at the very least, connect the people who are there,” Shakoor says. 

The Secret Society presents diverse traditions of storytelling and draws a diverse audience of all ages. Shakoor’s storytelling is based in her African American southern roots. Her names are their own stories — “Satori”, given to her by a Buddhist guru, means insight, and “Shakoor,” her married name, means compassion or gratitude in Arabic. 

“Storytelling is part of every culture,” she says. “In the African culture it’s particularly important because they used storytelling to keep the history, the growth, and evolution of the people. So, storytelling in the black community, especially in the South, was entertainment, scolding, embedded messages. It was everything. They told stories in the hair — which way to go for the underground railroad. Storytelling is code, metaphor. It’s different from the dissemination of information. There may be a science to it, but it’s intuitive to me.”

As a creative, Shakoor can go anywhere. Instead, she chooses to remain in this place with her family and her extended family in the Secret Society. She says she has “undergone a transformation” through her work.

“For me, service is the highest expression of love,” she says.

As a social entrepreneur, she says producing the Secret Society “uses all of me, everything I’ve trained for, everything I’ve experienced. It challenges me to grow and expand, and above all, I love it. There is no ‘elsewhere’ for me.”

“The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers” is the title of a collection of stories listed as a “work in progress” in Shakoor’s professional biography. On another level, the work in progress by the same name is performed on the third Friday of most months at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History n Midtown.

This story originally appeared in Model D here.