What do you call it when a Howard County college instructor suddenly finds herself entangled in a web of poisonous family rivalries, torrid secret affairs, voodoo and murder?

Acting! Soap opera acting, to be precise.

Laureen Benson Hall, an acting teacher at Howard Community College, has won the role of lawyer Vicky Matheson on "The Raven," a locally produced soap opera scheduled to debut Jan. 12 on Baltimore's WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

Described variously as "a black 'Twin Peaks' " and "a black 'Dynasty,' " the show depicts the trials and tribulations of the Tylers, a wealthy family that owns a national nightclub chain and record label, "The Raven."

Its producers say the show, which may be sold for syndication, portrays a slice of culture rarely seen on television programs: the black elite.

Vicky, the character Benson Hall plays in the show, is a shrewd lawyer who serves as campaign manager for Ellen Stewart, a Tyler family member running for state Senate. Stewart, it seems, has been receiving death threats since launching her campaign.

That's just one of the show's many twists.

In the pilot, which will air at 11:30 p.m., patriarch Howard Tyler has just died -- suspiciously, of course. Tyler's twin brother learns of the death from his home in a mental hospital. The patriarch's two sons, one of whom is a villain, are jockeying for control of the family's holdings.

Then there is Howard Tyler's estranged wife, Christine, who may or may not have used voodoo to hasten Howard's death.

"There are subplots of people sleeping together," Benson Hall adds.

The Catonsville actress, who has appeared in everything from "The Accidental Tourist" to Dristan commercials, said she won a spot on the show unexpectedly.

One Saturday afternoon last summer, "Black Americans need to see their lives in a different perspective . . . . We want to show the elite."

-- Darryl Pugh

she recalls, she was "moping around the house" when she picked up the paper and saw an ad for auditions for a black soap opera. She had only an hour to make the audition. She made it on time, and apparently impressed co-producer Darryl Pugh with her version of Barbra Streisand's courtroom monologue from the movie "Nuts."

Three weeks later, Pugh called to tell her he had written a role into the show just for her: a hard-nosed lawyer who always gets the job done.

"She fit the role," Pugh said.

Pugh, who created, produces and directs the show with his wife, Renee, said he hopes the characters on the show will "raise people's consciousness."

"Black Americans need to see their lives in a different perspective. Instead of hoodlums, pimps and hookers on the streets, we want to show the elite. It's a mega-bucks family," said Pugh, a former WMAR-TV (Channel 2) camera operator.

Benson Hall, a Mount Hebron High School graduate, also will appear in a nationally shown "Unsolved Mysteries" show in January.

In the segment entitled "The State Department Murders," the orange-haired actress plays the neighbor of a State Department employee who "chops up his family."

"I play Mrs. Williams, who is concerned and calls the police," she said.

Benson Hall's credits include bit parts in the movie "Her Alibi" and several roles in such plays as "Agnes of God," "Bus Stop" and "The King and I."

She also conducts local acting seminars as well as writes, paints and draws.

Oh, yes. Then there are her roles in industrial training films, bread-and-butter work for many aspiring actors.

In her most recent, "The Situation Room," she plays Army Col. Carol Mason, a proud user of a company's telecommunications equipment.

No room for Meryl Streep or method acting here. "They're very heavily scripted," she said.

Eventually, she hopes to become a film director. Meanwhile, "The Raven" will air on Channel 13.