WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Let’s talk about the actual city of Anacostia. How did this become the center point of your soap?
Anthony Anderson: Anacostia is a suburb in Washington, DC in the Southeast area, which does not have the most sterling reputation. If you listen to the writers and the producers of the TV show BONES, it’s like Little Beirut [EDITOR'S NOTE: BONES presented an offensive and negative episode about Anacostia in early November, 2010]. I was floored when I saw that episode. I thought, “Really? Obviously you have never driven through Anacostia, you’re just basing this off what you heard.”
It is going through a revitalization. They’re bringing in new businesses and developing things to take the area to where it can be. I decided to call the show ANACOSTIA because I knew the messages I wanted to bring in the show, and I knew that when people heard "Anacostia" that they would think it was seedy, crime riddled, very dark and gritty. What I did was turn that around and showed these characters in a very positive light. Everyone has very professional jobs, lives in a great neighborhood. People look at the show and they see Anacostia a little differently. That is where the area is going. It is getting more single story homes, more town homes, more businesses, and more Caucasian residents that are moving in. There is a baseball field now, more grocery stores, more retail outlets. It is definitely coming up, every day it gets better.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Did you ever live there?
Anthony Anderson: I grew up there, was born and raised until high school when we moved to Maryland.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How did the stories about the residents of Anacostia come to you?
Anthony Anderson: The very first character I started writing for was Selena Taylor (Chante Bowser). Every character on that show is an extension of either someone I know or someone that is in my family.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Even Dominique?
Anthony Anderson: Including the pimp Dominique [laughs]! But I thought of writing Selena first because she is indicative of what Anacostia is. People look at her one way, but if you scratch just beneath the surface it is completely different. I think people look at Selena as if she is the envy of the neighborhood because she has a great job, a great career, a great husband, she’s beautiful, she dresses gorgeous, she has everything going on for her. But just beneath the surface there is a problem. She has real trouble. And that I think that is so indicative of the area of Anacostia. When people look at Anacostia they see it one way but if they go beneath the surface they will see it is a gorgeously historical area of Washington, DC. It is absolutely beautiful there.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Season Two is really doing more to spotlight the exteriors of the town, including lakes, parks, and the new housing developments.
Anthony Anderson: That is one of the things I wanted to do in Season Two. I wanted to take it outside, and take it on the streets. I wanted to give people a tour of the greater DC area. I wanted to show that as a tourist you don’t have to be regimented to just the DC monuments. You can actually come into these areas and have a good time now, there are attractions for the tourists. Like the Fredrick Douglass House. The slave train tracks run through parts of Anacostia. It is rich in history. Unfortunately because of the connotation that it has, people don’t tend to focus on that.
Anthony Anderson: Hmm. Let’s not even start. [Pause] I think this city is a city of celebrity. If you are from this area and you are doing something great, you hear, “Oh that’s nice.” However, if someone from Hollywood comes to this area to shoot a movie for three or four days, then it's like, “Let’s put them on the radio, let’s get them on the news, let’s talk about what you’re doing here.” It is one of the most stressful and most upsetting feelings to have—that you are doing something positive for this area, and the people outside this area recognize your work more than the people in your own backyard. On one hand it’s hilarious. On another it’s ridiculous.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I can’t help but think that has to change.
Anthony Anderson: Well, yes. The Smithsonian Museum is doing a documentary on the arts of Anacostia. They actually selected us for their exhibit which is going up in September, 2011. We would love it if the DC Arts Council or the Mayor’s Office would come on board and recognize what we are doing for Anacostia and for the DC area. We are giving a lot of unemployed actors work.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: And you’re spotlighting the real estate and new business.
Anthony Anderson: Yup. One day it will happen. I am patient.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: One of the things I enjoy so much about ANACOSTIA is that you have such a firm grasp on how to tell a rewarding continuing story. You lay down character development first so that the audience is invested in where the plot goes instead of the other way around. How did you learn this style of story telling?
Anthony Anderson: The stories are intricate and intertwined with each other. A person has to pay attention. The first season involved the mystery of who killed Michael Stevenson. The second episode [of season one] really laid out the map of who killed him. It wasn’t until season two that people could look back on it and figure it out.
I learned by watching the best. I grew up watching KNOTS LANDING, DYNASTY, FALCON CREST, and DALLAS. From week to week you would see there was a beginning, middle, and an end. And that end would carry you over to next week. There was always something that happened in the last minute that would make you tune in the next week. It was always like a train that was on its way to a destination, and along the way would make some stops. It would pick up different passengers along the way, so by the end you never knew what you were going to get. That’s how I go into writing the shows.
I start writing each season with the very last episode and I work backwards. I always know what the season finale is going to be first, and I work back from that. I love story telling and I love reading books. The great thing about books is that when it’s really great you get so engrossed that you get sucked into that story. What I wanted to do was have ANACOSTIA play off like you are reading a book. By the time you realize how much you’re into it, you forget you are watching a series that’s not real. You are like a fly in the wall in these people’s lives. I’m glad people watch and say they are addicted. They have to come back over and over and over.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: And that is much a credit to your story telling. I was in the audience when you screened episode three of season two at the Harlem Queer Film Festival last month. The people around me who were unfamiliar with the show initially snickered at some of the plot points, like Julian coming back from the dead. But by the time that episode ended they were literally exclaiming, “They can’t end it here! What happens next?” They were drawn in and wanted to see the next episode.
Anthony Anderson: That’s actually what I love about the show. We don’t have draws that other shows have, like former daytime stars who have a set fan base and bring that audience. We have a grassroots type thing. We don’t have PR people, we don’t have any major sponsorship. But what we do have is great story. So when people watch the show, they initially think, “What is this about? I’m not going to watch something about Anacostia.” But gradually they start watching it and spread word of mouth. They tell each other, “You have to watch it and you won’t be able to take your eyes away from it.” Whereas other shows already have a fan base because of the actors, we’re just say, “We’re going to get you one fan at a time. That person is going to tell person, and that person is going to tell one person...” Gradually we have seen our audience grow from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand. And it is steadily growing now as season two airs. People are going back and starting with the first episode of season one.
It is amazing to see the responses and to read the comments people leave. They can’t wait for the next episode, and that is what I think soap opera is supposed to be. It is supposed to be something you watch, find some characters you love, and find some characters you despise. You say, “I can’t believe this person did this,” and I’m glad that is what the show is bringing. I’m glad people are having debates about the gay couple. I’m glad that people who have never seen two men kiss have now experienced that with our show and say, “Well that wasn’t so bad, I didn’t puke.” Little by little we are broadening people’s horizons while entertaining them.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please come back for Part Three in which Anderson discusses the core friendships on the show and the controversy surrounding his primary gay character's suicide attempt. Plus, is a white family moving into ANACOSTIA? Find out in Part Three! To see more pictures and learn more about the current revitalizing of Anactosia, go to Anacostia Now. To watch this wonderful series from the beginning, press here.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist now accepting new clients in New York City. He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." For more information about scheduling an appointment, please email him at Shouldless@gmail.com.