Black soap opera bubbles with opportunity


The slick young nightclub owner and the sultry singer are talking contract. He wants to know if she's worth what she's asking.

"Mr. Tyler, I can assure you I'm worth that and a whole lot more," the dressed-to-kill singer retorts in true diva fashion.

"Just how much more?" he persists. Then, to make his melodramatic point, he sets fire to the contract right there at the restaurant table, leaving just enough unburned for her to still sign it.

"Cut!" is the next exclamation, coming from writer-producer-director Darryl E. Pugh Sr., as he finishes another scene in the one-hour pilot episode for a projected black soap opera series called "The Raven."

Produced and set in Baltimore, with the mid-town nightclub International Pavilion passing as a nightclub called The Raven, this soap opera is about "high finance, power, politics, sex and greed. It's a black 'Dynasty' with a 'Twin Peaks' twist," Mr. Pugh says during a break in the filming, taking place at locations around the city this week and last. "The only thing different between this and any other soap opera is the color of the actors' faces."

To the "Dallas" and "Dynasty" manor born, "The Raven" is about a mega-wealthy family that accrues unhappiness along with interest. In the pilot episode, the old family patriarch is found dead of a heart attack in his downtown office. Foul play is suspected, though.

His two sons vie for the nightclub and the rest of the family fortune, and his daughter, running for state senator, is also a power grabber. Then there is the dead patriarch's golddigger of an ex-wife, whom Mr. Pugh refers to as "Christina, the bitch."

The production, which also has the Harbor Court hotel, a local funeral home and Edgar Allan Poe's grave among its locales, has its share of hectic on-set action, too.

During another nightclub scene shot last week at the International Pavilion, a bunch of formally dressed Baltimore swells had been drafted as patrons turning out to see real-life singer MeLi'sa Morgan perform. The site swirls with production-related activity: Spaghetti strands of cable weave through the club, making every step a deliberate one; makeup trays sit next to food trays to one side of the set, making it imperative that actors look before they reach.

And there are all the little things that make a film shoot a soap opera unto itself. One shot is delayed when an extra's pager beeps. Another has to be done again when an extra balks at drinking the phony booze in her glass. "It's water with coloring," she complains.

But as shooting does proceed -- indeed, at a fast pace -- the 33-year-old Mr. Pugh gets closer to realizing a dream that goes back to the early 1980s: in 1984 he shot interiors at his East Baltimore row house for what was to have been "The Raven's" first episode. His goal, he says, was to "create roles for minority actors, because there were no roles of substance for them in the industry."

Some syndication interest was shown in the project, but no deals were struck, he says, "because this was before 'Oprah' or 'Cosby.' My project came to a dead standstill as I waited for things to turn around."

After working for the past six years at WMAR-TV in production capacities, Mr. Pugh went out on his own this year and essentially started from ground zero with financing another pilot episode. For his soap opera about ardent capitalists, most of the capital for the pilot -- some $60,000 -- is coming from his own pocket. A spokeswoman for WJZ-TV says the station will air the pilot Jan. 12 (at 12:30 a.m.), and Mr. Pugh is trying to put together a syndication deal for 26 weekly episodes.

Mr. Pugh is proud that the pilot for "The Raven" is providing employment for the predominantly black company of 18 actors and 21 crew members, many of them from the Baltimore-Washington area.

Peter O'Neal, who works full time as a news photographer at WMAR-TV and is helping out as a production assistant on "The Raven," says "a show like this one is not just important in terms of giving employment to blacks. It also gives kids some positive role models."

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