Sitting in a quaint Jamaican restaurant on Broadview Avenue called the Caribbean Dutchpot, affable singer, songwriter and actor Arlene Duncan doesn’t stand out at all.
But if she’s walking along Danforth Avenue, there’s a good chance someone will pick her out of a crowd.
“I find that if I put anything around my head, people recognize me immediately,” said Duncan, who is best known for playing the hijab-wearing cafe owner Fatima Dinssa in the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.
“I had this green tam on walking along the Danforth, and this guy who you’d never think would watch the show says ‘Hey, what are you doing around here?’
“I said ‘Well, I kind of live around here!’ ”
The long-time Beach resident has called Toronto her home for most of her life. Originally from Oakville, she studied the triple threat program of singing, acting and dancing at Sheridan College and was involved in bands, student council and singing at an early age.
“My parents never discouraged me from being in the arts,” she said. “They sort of thought ‘This is what Arlene does.’ ”
She got her start in a competition called the du Maurier Search for Stars, similar to American Idol, where she came out on top of thousands of other competitors.
To date, Duncan has appeared in more than three-dozen film and television projects including Degrassi: The Next Generation, Showtime TV series Soul Food and CBC comedy-drama Being Erica.
While better known for her acting roles, Duncan is also an accomplished singer. She has won the Female Vocalist of the Year at the Canadian Black Music Awards, as well as the BLAC 1994 Female Vocalist of the Year Hall of Fame Award for Dance/House music.
“When I first met my agent she asked me what I wanted to do,” the gregarious actor remarks offhandedly. “I said ‘everything’. And that’s essentially what I’ve done.”
Now as the sixth and final season of Little Mosque on the Prairie is launched in January, Duncan is retiring her character Dinssa and preparing for the role of Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid to a Jewish family in 1963, in the Tony award-winning musical Caroline or Change.
The story tells the tale of Thibodeaux and how she struggles to maintain her identity in a time of social change, while juggling her job and providing for her children.
Duncan sees a connection between Thibodeaux and Dinssa because they are both strong, independent women who worked hard to build a future for their children.
“For me, it’s the same as Fatima in a way … These are the people that we stand on, the people that came before us,” she said. “We can be what we are today because these people were who they were.”
While she’s excited to step into Thibodeaux’s shoes, that doesn’t mean she’s not going to miss playing Dinssa.
“It’s a bittersweet kind of thing,” she said. “It’s been a nice long haul, we’re very lucky as a Canadian show to have that kind of time … But I’m looking forward to going on to other things.”
The show’s producers changed Dinssa from Somali to Nigerian because they felt Duncan would fit the role more.
For Duncan, who is half Jamaican-Canadian, the hardest part was learning the Nigerian accent because the two have some similar enunciations.
“If someone had to mess me up, all they had to do was speak with a Jamaican accent while on set,” Duncan said. “I’d keep (Nigerian films) running in my dressing room to maintain the accent.”
It’s obvious she learned much more than how to speak with an accent. Displaying her impressive knowledge of Islam, she quickly corrects herself when she almost uses the wrong word to refer to followers of the Islamic faith.
“I’ve been well taught,” she says with an infectious laugh that fills the room.
It helps that the Little Mosque on the Prairie set had a husband and wife Muslim consultant team.
“We’d have them saying things like, sit close together … but as close together as Islamicly possible,” she said.
She believes living in Toronto and being exposed to so many cultures helped prepare her for the culturally sensitive role. She currently resides in the east part of the city, which she loves because of what she perceives as a small town feel.
“I like the village feel of it, you have yards and trees and neighbours, and you can walk to the store,” she said. “It’s like being in a town in the middle of the city.”
And while frequently getting called out for her role in an internationally syndicated sitcom may remind her of her success, she still has humbling moments while zipping about the Beach.
Recently, a woman approached Duncan and asked her a familiar question: ‘Where do I know you from?’
Moments before Duncan bashfully revealed that she does a little acting, the lady recalled from where she knew her.
“She said ‘Oh, you’re Yuri’s mom right? I used to go to school with your son! Will you say hi to him for me?’ ”