Online 'Anacostia' Soap Opera Turns The Genre On Its Head

Many of us grew up watching soap operas on television, from As The World Turns during the day, to Dallas at night. But more and more, the crazy plot twists and deadly secrets that drive the genre are moving to the Internet. One web-based soap set in Washington D.C. is based in a neighborhood once written off by many in the city because of its reputation for poverty and crime.

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Many of us grew up watching soap operas on television. Perhaps it was "As the World Turns" during the day or "Dallas" at night. Even though the unlikely plot twists and deadly secrets that drive the genre are falling out of favor on TV, many of the shows are moving to the Internet. One Web-based soap is set in Washington, D.C. in a neighborhood once written off by some people because of its reputation for poverty and crime. NPR's Allison Keyes visits the set of "Anacostia," the Web series.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: There's the villainous madam whose daughter is kidnapped.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANACOSTIA")

ACTRESS: Don't you dare hurt my child. If you do I swear to god I will hunt you down (unintelligible).

KEYES: There's the model with the drug problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANACOSTIA")

ACTRESS: Why don't you go run and tell the others how you just caught me in the church doing coke?

KEYES: And then there's the battered wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANACOSTIA")

ACTRESS: Do you know, sometimes I hate you.

ACTOR: What, just sometimes? I guess I'm not trying hard enough.

KEYES: Got to love a soap opera. The show's creator, lead actor and writer, Anthony Anderson, is a longtime fan of scripted serialized drama.

ANTHONY ANDERSON: I just found the stories to be so intriguing and so captivating that I just wanted to do something of my own with African-Americans.

KEYES: Not only did Anderson choose an ethnicity that rarely gets lead story lines in a soap, he also chose Anacostia as its setting. The predominantly black neighborhood is viewed with trepidation by a bunch of white Washington who think of it as that scary place across the river that's a hotbed of crime and poverty.

But Anderson says the rapidly gentrifying area has all the elements of the soap.

ANDERSON: It has its drama. It has its mystery. It has its upstanding citizens and it has its not so upstanding citizens.

TAMIEKA CHAVIS: The characters are real, you know. They're your mom. They're your sister. They're your neighbors.

KEYES: Tamieka Chavis plays Mia Stevenson who happens to be a battered woman among many other things. She thinks the show has done a great job of highlighting Anacostia's rich culture and shows off its burgeoning upscale hangouts. Chavis says the characters connect with the people that live here.

CHAVIS: They're not strangers and I really like that sense - I know this area has grown so much, blossomed so much. It's a great thing.

ANDERSON: Camera, sound, take one and action.

KEYES: Anthony Anderson was shooting a scene about a character's pregnancy test on a D.C. Department of Health mobile van. Karen Watts(ph), the D.C.'s DOH, says the partnership with the Web series is a first for the city. It's an attempt at engaging the public in a new way and trying to lessen the chance of unhealthy babies being born in communities at risk.

KAREN WATTS: What we're hoping is that individuals are like, oh, yeah, I remember that, you know. I know a friend who needs to go in and get checked.

KEYES: Of course, this is a soap opera, so you know that pregnancy test was one of the salacious story lines that make this genre appealing.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ANACOSTIA")

ANDERSON: Julian(ph), I don't understand. Where were you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm sorry. Look, I promise - it's a long story and I'll explain all that.

KEYES: Anderson's character's lover vanished, then returned.

ANDERSON: He was thought to be dead, but he was actually pretending to be dead to protect his lover from the people that tried to kill him.

KEYES: And now both may be dead after a church is blown up by a man who's against same-sex marriage. In all seriousness, though, both Anderson and Tamieka Chavis say the audience is captivated by the real life issues fans to the series end up considering. Take Tamieka's battered wife character, Mia. Chavis says people came up to her on the street and said they appreciated the story line.

CHAVIS: Seeing that they're not by themselves, that it is an issue that other women go through, even other men. Men get battered, too.

ANDERSON: Cut. That looked like money on my end.

KEYES: In addition to getting love from the city, the show is getting kudos in the industry as well. In 2010, "Anacostia" the Web series won for Best Ensemble in the first annual Indie Soap Awards. Last year, Anthony Anderson won for best writer, drama. The web series genre is gaining mainstream popularity. The Netflix series "House of Cards," which streams online, just picked up nine Emmy nominations.

ANDERSON: Little by little, people are recognizing the web as a formidable place to get your entertainment.

KEYES: Anderson says shows like "Anacostia" led that charge and now it's attracting mainstream soap stars like Martha Byrne, formerly of "As The World Turns." Anderson says he's looking forward to taking on more issues he thinks African-Americans should be discussing in their communities. Season Four begins airing this fall. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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