In the opening scene of the Web series “Anacostia,” a man sitting in his car is fatally shot. But this is not a crime drama about drug dealers and warring neighborhood crews.
It’s a soap opera.
The character who was gunned down was a successful businessman, but also a cruel, philandering husband and a shark in the boardroom. He was a villain on the order of J.R. Ewing, the popular antagonist of the prime-time soap “Dallas.”
Anthony Anderson, the creator of “Anacostia,” is flattered by the comparison. The Washington native grew up watching “Dallas,” its spin-off “Knots Landing,” and some of the long-running but fast-disappearing daytime serials.
“There was something about that make-believe world. These beautiful, well-off people who lived in big houses, and you think their lives are better than yours but they had all these problems,” he said. Except very few of them were black, and those who were had small roles, none as full and wacky as the white characters.
For his online story, Anderson recreated the glamorous melodrama of the soap opera in an upscale neighborhood in Anacostia, a community that in real life more often brings to mind poverty and crime, not busybody buppies. “Anacostia” follows the lives of four friends as they deal with love, lust, ambition, secrets — all the staples of the genre. The third season begins Friday.
Since its debut in 2009, “Anacostia” has attracted a loyal fan base, picked up a couple of awards and snared a former daytime soap star for a recurring role in the upcoming season. Anderson said the show is downloaded in 96 countries and gets 8,000 to 10,000 viewers per episode. Its Facebook page has nearly 5,000 fans.
“Anacostia” is part of a growing body of scripted dramas created primarily for online consumption, allowing independent writers, directors and actors to bypass television and network gatekeepers. Another popular D.C. Web drama is “Orange Juice in Bishop’s Garden,” which is based on local filmmaker Otessa Ghadar’s experiences as a teen in the 1990s.
The cast members of “Anacostia” do not get paid, and Anderson financed the first season entirely out of his own pocket, which resulted in his truck being temporarily repossessed. Anderson said the first season cost $10,000, which he financed by tapping his 401 (k) account. When his truck was repossessed, members of the cast pooled money to help him get it back. He eventually persuaded local businesses to sign on as sponsors last season and this season, but that money went into improving the quality of the production. Anderson earns a living contracting with the Federal Aviation Administration as a document program coordinator.
Keeping the cast together, Anderson says, is “like running for president. You have to do a bunch of campaigning, let them know why they should support you, why they should stay with you . . . [that] it’s not going to happen overnight, but someday it will pay off.”
On the set during a recent shoot, four actors, a videographer, a sound person and Anderson crowded into the tiny reception area of Anacostia River Realty, one of the show’s sponsors, to shoot scenes. Anderson wore the focused face of a big-budget film director, calling out “Action!” and “Cut!” Almost every member of the cast and crew has a day job, so the vast majority of shooting is done on the weekends. It takes six to eight weeks to film 10 episodes; each runs 15 to 30 minutes.
Wil Lash, who plays the husband of a woman with a drinking problem, said he stays on because the cast has become like a second family and it gives him a chance to work on his acting and get more exposure.
“We could have said we’re done with this. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not making any money,” said Lash, who was a contestant on the “I Love New York” reality series on VH1. “But I see promise, and every season we see the vision more and more.”
Lash, who works for an IT firm, is from a small town in Indiana and said his family is not down with all of the series’ story lines and R-rated sex scenes. In addition to instances of infidelity, the show features a madam whose clients include kinky U.S. senators. One of the main characters is Sean, an openly gay man played by Anderson who gets over the loss of a boyfriend by falling into the arms of a hot new lover.
“I think it makes our show edgier and allows us to touch on subjects a lot of African American shows are afraid to touch on,” Lash said. “Most people, based on what they know about Anacostia, think this is going to be some ghetto, thuggish type of thing like ‘The Wire,’ and it’s not. And that’s what Anthony is trying to portray: They are normal, everyday people with normal, everybody problems.”
Indeed, Anacostia and other neighborhoods east of the river have always been home to middle-class residents and have recently seen an influx of young black professionals.
Anderson, 38, whose mother moved her four children to Gaithersburg when he was in ninth grade, said he was so miserable in his new surroundings that he thought of dropping out. But he said his mother, Annie Mae, a single parent who worked two jobs, threatened: “ ‘The day you drop out of school is the day you leave my house.’ Needless to say, I was at the bus stop the next morning.”
After graduating, he took a few theater classes at Montgomery College and worked in a couple of local independent films before creating his own company, Southeast Boy Productions. His first production was a feature-length film, “The Ties that Bind,” that included some of the actors now in “Anacostia.”
In February, “Anacostia” garnered nine nominations in the Indie Soap Awards. The show ended up winning two awards — Anderson, for outstanding lead actor, and Pasha Diallo, who plays the madam, for best breakthrough performance.
Anderson wiped tears during his acceptance speech as he described how as a child he was taunted by other children because of his pronounced stutter. He spent a lot of time by himself , he said, and would fill the void with characters from short stories he wrote in a notebook. He introduced Lora Lee, who he said was his only friend in elementary school. She does hair and makeup for the Web series.
Lee said she and Anderson “clicked” from the day they met in second grade at Henley Elementary School. “We were both little mini outcasts,” she said. “He’s always been very artistic and eccentric, making up stories in his head. We used to joke about the people in his head when we were kids.”
She laughs when actors get flustered by Anderson’s demands. “He has been intense since second grade,” she said. “If he gets snappy, I tell them, just let him do his thing. He knows how he wants things done.”
Besides winning the awards, Anderson was thrilled to compete against well-known soap stars and to rub elbows with some of them at the awards ceremony in New York City.
He also made a thrilling connection.
The show was hosted by Martha Byrne, who for nearly 20 years played Lily Walsh on “As the World Turns.” Byrne was so impressed with Anderson’s passion and his work that she agreed to guest-star in the upcoming season.
Byrne said in a telephone interview that she started watching “Anacostia” after it was nominated for the Indie awards. “It’s a very class soap opera. I love that about it. It’s relationships, hidden secrets, back-stabbing; it’s sexy ,and it’s funny.”
When Anderson sent her the script, “I read the first five pages, and I was like, ‘OK!’ ”
“There will be a big reveal as far as who I am, and it will surprise a lot of people the kind of character I’m playing. Such a complex story line already exists on the show, and I fit into it in a very unique way,” Byrne said.
She also said: “I hadn’t worked that hard in a long time. We were all over D.C. and outside D.C., running around shooting on the street, in front of local businesses, and it was really hard, but I love that.”
Byrne, who has her own Web show, called “Gotham,” said the Internet offers an “endless” amount of Web series from all over the world that is keeping the soap-opera genre alive as it fades from daytime television. “Soap operas are dying, going away. We feel like in this space our shows can go on or be revitalized. We have fans in the millions out there still.”
Anderson said that Byrne offered good feedback and pointers and that he immediately could see improvements in the cast members’ performances. But, most of all, he could hardly believe he was in the presence of soap-opera royalty.
“If anyone had told me that I would be standing behind the camera watching a two-time Emmy winner not only saying my lines, but I’m giving directions to her, I never would have believed it.
“I kept looking at her and thinking, ‘Lily Walsh is on the set of “Anacostia!” ’ ”