It is late, nearly midnight, and actress Nicole Ari Parker has just finished another 14-hour day on location in Toronto, shooting scenes for the coming Showtime series, "Soul Food."

As the Baltimore native begins a telephone chat, she is bursting with energy and emphatic declarations. But after a while, fatigue starts to seep ever so softly into her voice. Marathon workdays, rehearsals, magazine shoots, promotional events, quick meals and very little sleep have left Parker understandably exhausted - but grateful.

"I've done a sitcom and movies, but this is all new to me, another level of hysteria," says the twenty-something actress of her starring role in "Soul Food," based on the 1997 hit movie of the same name. (The one-hour drama premieres tonight at 10 on Showtime.)

Executive-produced by musician Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and his wife, Tracey E. Edmonds, the series picks up where the film ended. It tracks the lives of three African-American sisters in Chicago, fighting to save their family and traditions after their mother dies. Parker plays Teri, the role originated by singer/actress Vanessa L. Williams in the feature film. Others in the ensemble cast include Malinda Williams ("The Wood"), the "other" Vanessa Williams ("Chicago Hope") and Isaiah Washington ("Out of Sight"). Eriq La Salle, who portrays Dr. Peter Benton on the medical drama "ER," directed the premiere episode.

"These are people I love working with ... generous, talented people," says Parker. "I get nothing but love at work. We laugh, we cry. We are really like family."

The cast and crew have been in Canada since late March, shooting the first of 20 episodes ordered by Showtime. They expect to wrap sometime in November.

"There are days when we shoot from 8 in the morning until 11 at night," says Parker, who was shooting a film in Amsterdam earlier this year when her agent phoned to deliver the good news about her landing the part.

"On a good day you might finish early and have time to go to the bank, the post office, or pick up your dry cleaning. But the work is joyous, all of it. I am so, so happy. I feel so blessed."

The hectic schedule comes after years of knocking, banging and kicking on that proverbial door marked fame and fortune.

Growing up between East and West Baltimore, "Nikki" was a precocious only child who loved to play dress-up. Her first "job" was modeling in the splashy fashion shows her late uncle, Lawrence Parker, held at venues like the old Civic Center. Along the way, she took voice and dance lessons, did regional theater and performed in drama productions at Roland Park Country School.

"Really, Nikki has always been an actress," says her mother, Susan, a businesswoman who relocated to the San Diego area from Baltimore three years ago.

Early on, Parker was exposed to exotic cuisine, antiques, travel and the arts. "As a little girl, Nikki would write scripts at Christmas and Thanksgiving and perform with props and costumes," says her mother.

After high school, Parker studied acting at New York University, earning a degree in 1992 from the famed Tisch School of the Arts.

Like most young actors, her post-graduate days in New York were spent scraping, struggling and holding down a string of odd jobs - everything from scooping ice cream at Ben and Jerry's to retail sales at the upscale department store, Barney's

Between jobs and shifts, Parker auditioned for parts, learning how callous the industry can be to pretty young women nursing dreams of stardom.

"This business is set up for rejection," says Parker. "I got beat down, kind of walked around with my tail folded under. I never wanted to give up and come back home. I just wanted to make the pain go away."

Parker's father says she experienced "a lot of depressed times, a lot of hard times."

"It wasn't like it came easy," says Donald Parker, a dentist in West Baltimore. "But she knew if she wanted anything good to stick with it. What it says to me is that hard work and dedication work."

At a time when many actresses, particularly those of color, are lamenting the dearth of viable roles, Parker has amassed an impressive body of screen and stage work, including dozens of television and feature film credits. She was the sassy porn star who lent a touch of brown sugar to the box-office smash "Boogie Nights" (1997), Martin Lawrence's co-star in "Blue Streak" (1999) and part of the independent ensemble flick "200 Cigarettes" (1999).

Her television credits include the recurring role of Rebecca on the latter-day "Cosby," "The Loretta Claiborne Story," and NBC's "Law and Order," just to name a few.

She recently completed three feature films, two that are slated for release in the coming months. "Loving Jezebel" with Phylicia Rashad hits theaters Aug. 18. She will play Denzel Washington's wife in "Remember the Titans" due out on Sept. 29.

Parker is also excited about her lead role in "Dancing in September," an African-American love story from director Reggie Rock Bythewood (whose wife, Gina Prince Bythewood, scored a hit recently with "Love and Basketball"). "Dancing" premiered earlier this month to rave reviews at the Acapulco Black Film Festival; so far, no release date has been set.

Parker's first big break came in "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love." The teen-age first-love story, about a rich, beautiful, African-American princess and a white tomboy from the wrong side of the tracks, began as a thesis project for fellow NYU alum Maria Maggenti.

It became the buzz of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, and it helped propel Parker from an unemployed actress with a negative bank account balance to a star-studded world of premieres, film festivals and awards.

Her success has thrilled family and friends, but it hasn't been a surprise.

"The first time I met her she was about 3 or 4 years old, and dressed like Diana Ross with a boa around her neck, singing 'Babylove,'" recalls her godmother Shirley Edwards, a Coppin State College professor. "I have been following her brilliant career ever since."

Anne Heuisler, one of Parker's former English teachers at Roland Park Country School, remembers she "loved to be called on to read aloud or act out a part in 'Macbeth'."

"She could read aloud the dullest grammar lesson and give it some oomph. Even at that age, she had this marvelous sort of sultry voice."

That range has also served Parker on stage, which she considers her first love. One of her goals is to return to the theater; she also is thinking of directing, and wants to broaden the range of characters she brings to her film roles.

"I'd love to play a Superhero, or find a historical film, but probably not a slave narrative," she explains. "There are so many other stories to tell about the African-American experience, and to deny them is to deny our existence."

Right now, however, the focus is "Soul Food."

Efforts of the NAACP and others to increase diversity on both sides of the camera are laudable but will mean very little, says Parker, if the audience isn't there.

"It doesn't matter if the show is black or white, if the people are watching it stays on the air."

One person who will be watching is Parker's aunt, Delores "Sissy" Washington. Over the years, she's kept a scrapbook that chronicles her niece's career; she often tapes her film and TV projects.

"It makes me very proud. I go absolutely nuts when I see her on television," she says with a laugh. " I know how hard she's worked for this success. It's what she deserves."

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