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Two daytime stars with local ties play out controversial story line

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's been more than 30 years since "One Life to Live's" Ed and Carla Hall reigned supreme among a handful of black characters on daytime television. Today, the soap opera landscape is slightly better.

Lamman Rucker, left, and Tamara Tunie are involved in a story line on the daytime drama "As the World Turns" in which Tunie's character, Jessica, accuses her former lover, Marshall, of raping her. (Walter Thompson/PGP)

For more information about Tunie, visit: www.soapcity.com, us.imdb.com/Name?Tunie,+Tamara or www.soapcentral.com.

For more information about Rucker, visit: www.soapcity.com, us.imdb.com/Name?Rucker,+Lamman or www.soapcentral.com.

Two black actors with Pittsburgh ties are heating up the small screen opposite each other in one of the raciest daytime acquaintance-rape story lines since Luke raped Laura on "General Hospital."

Homestead native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate Tamara Tunie plays the smart, sultry, former district attorney Jessica Griffin on CBS's "As the World Turns."

Pittsburgh-born and Duquesne University-educated Lamman Rucker plays the dashing-yet-dastardly attorney T. Marshall Travers.

In typical, convoluted soap opera fashion, Jessica and Marshall, once rivals for the district attorney's office, had an affair during the campaign. Jessica ended their relationship. When Marshall later was arrested for criminal conspiracy, obstruction of justice and bribery, Jessica agreed to represent him and took him into her custody -- permitting him to stay in her home. That's when it happened. Now, Jessica has filed rape charges against Marshall, and Marshall maintains it was consensual.

From her perspective, it's "No. Don't. Stop." From his, it's, "No ... don't stop."

Even the audience doesn't know who's telling the truth. The incident never has been shown on the air, but it will all become clear today (at 2 p.m. on KDKA-TV) when viewers see what happened from both characters' perspectives.

"It's really smart the way they're doing this," says Tunie via telephone from her home in New York.

Even after the audience sees the event from both characters' perspectives, what really happened may still be open to interpretation.

"There are so many women who have been in this situation, and it's ambiguous and it's your word against the other person's," Tunie says. "Even though it was ambiguous and they did have a past relationship and she had the man staying at her house at her request because she's his lawyer, the fact is that Jessica believed that she was violated.

"She intends to go the distance, and that sends out a very strong message to people who have been in this situation or who might be in this situation in the future."

There also are viewers who see the situation from Marshall's perspective.

"They say, 'No, she's at fault to some degree. She led him on. She's given him mixed signals,' " says Rucker via telephone from the show's set in New York. "A lot of people feel like Marshall is the victim."

Initially, Tunie wasn't thrilled with the story line when the show's writers and producers approached her. Both she and Rucker were concerned the plot would feed into racial stereotypes. However, after they talked with the writers, their fears were allayed.

"The idea of these two people having completely different takes and perceptions of the same intimate event was intriguing to me," says Tunie, who received an Independent Spirit Award best supporting actress nomination for her role in Kasi Lemmon's 2001 film "The Caveman's Valentine."

"They haven't fed into the typical stereotypes," says Rucker, who played Jimmy Ruffin in the 1998 TV movie "Temptations." "He doesn't realize [Jessica's upset] until the following morning. He thinks they consummated their relationship. ... He loves her."

The story line also is getting good buzz with the critics.

"The 'he said, she said' acquaintance-rape plot on 'As the World Turns' is raw, dangerous, unsparingly honest," writes Michael Logan in this week's TV Guide. "... Head writer Hogan Sheffer and stars Tamara Tunie (Jessica) and Lamman Rucker (Marshall) are telling their tale with intelligence, maturity and guts galore. They make one proud to be a soap watcher."

This story line is an actor's dream.

"This is something I've been waiting for about 15 years," says Tunie, who for the past three years in prime time also has portrayed medical examiner Melinda Warner on "Law & Order: SVU." "The actors who are playing it are black, but this is drama that could pertain to anybody."

Soap operas seem to be able to better integrate their casts than prime-time network shows because they hire large numbers of actors and have more character turnover, says Robert Thompson, director of The Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"We have a number of African Americans in the cast as good guys and bad guys and all the rest as opposed to it solely being about their blackness," he says.

And it's a delicate balance for writers.

"If you simply go the route of having black characters and never talk about the issue of race, you're being utopian," Thompson says. "On the other hand, it is progress when African Americans can get good roles on topics other than solely their race."

Tunie agrees. She portrayed the role of Jessica from 1987-95, took a hiatus to work on other projects, and returned to the show in 1999.

During her first stint on the show, her most controversial, lead story line was about Jessica being a black woman married to a white Scottish man, and the fallout from their families' displeasure about the interracial marriage.

"This time around, the story doesn't have to do anything with the color of anybody's skin," Tunie says. "It's more of a universal kind of story line that people can connect with."

In Tunie's opinion, "As the World Turns" as well as "The Young and the Restless" and "Passions" are the daytime dramas blazing the trail in terms of leading black characters with powerful story lines.

And while opportunities are better in soap operas, Thompson is hesitant to say opportunities are best for minority actors in daytime dramas.

"When we get right down to it, do we still have a ghettoization of the work?" he asks.

Although many actors of all races gain valuable experience, financial stability, and national name and face recognition working in soap operas, most still aspire to leading roles in prime-time network or cable programs, films and on stage.

Tunie, who also was seen in prime time last season as Alberta Green on Fox's "24," doesn't dispute that but still maintains that right now daytime dramas are better at providing opportunities for minority actors.

"They're much better than prime time and much better than the film industry," she says.

L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.

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