The Not-So-Grand Experiment

Public access television has always been frowned upon by boob-tube elitists. It's cheap, shoddy, crude and amateurish, they say. But what they forget, or ignore, is the fact that public access is a forum for experimentation -- and not just in the Spice Channel sort of way.

Fort Worth-born civil engineer John F. Moning Jr. knows all about experimentation: He spends most of his leisure time tinkering with Video Radio, his six-year-old public access music-video program. Looking for a way to perk it up a little, Moning and associate producer/longtime pal Aaron Coleman spent a full day in an intense brainstorming session.

"Aaron and I were around my kitchen table, and we were deciding on what to do to make Video Radio more interesting," Moning remembers. "We wanted ... to bring in poets and musicians and interview different people, and we thought about a coffeehouse." The idea soon morphed into "Black Coffee," a show-within-a-show that's a brief but raucous combination of soap opera, variety show and chitlin' circuit play. "Since [the show is] programmed like a radio station," Moning says, "I wanted to find out whether we could do something like they used to do in old radio, which was have those comedies or serials like The Shadow and all that stuff."

The mini-mini-series is a chance for Moning to add some plot-driven fodder to Video Radio instead of just playing another Jennifer Lopez video. "Black Coffee" is the serialized story of a middle-aged woman named Vivian who runs a Houston coffee shop complete with "zany folk" behind and in front of the espresso machine. Although "Black Coffee" has its moments of outrageous humor, Moning and his crew insist that this "situation dramedy" also serves up social consciousness, as it deals with issues such as female independence, spousal abuse and even cross-dressing. "There are just so many issues that are being portrayed on this show," Moning says. "But we're doing it in so much fun."

Even more important, "Black Coffee" is a place where local talent can shine on television. "A lot of times actors and musicians have to go elsewhere to prove themselves," Coleman says. "But if there were some way that we could stay here, if the industry were here, we could do it from here, because there's so many talented people in Houston." Most of the cast has been pulled from local gay and lesbian theater, Channel 13's Crime Stoppers commercials and B-movie fare like My Best Friend Is a Vampire. Barbara Burnette, who plays the curvaceous coffee-shop owner, joined the show to get back on the thespian bandwagon after concentrating for years on her singing career. Marcus Freeman, who plays Leon the cross-dresser, finds his character's complex material intriguing: "Does that have something to do with his mother? From the past? Is that his way of getting attention? Or is it that he's trying to connect with something he didn't have?"

Moning and his crew are scouting locations where they can shoot upcoming episodes. The coffee shop they called home, Muddi Waters, shut down not long ago. They are also adding "a show within a show within a show" called "Black Coffee Presents Local Artists," which will spotlight regional talent. "Black Coffee" is reaching households not just in Houston, but in Dallas, Fort Worth, New York, Atlanta and several Midwestern cities. All this exposure makes the people behind the show eager to see how audiences are reacting to it.

"What I want people to say is, 'That's really very interesting,' or they laugh and go, 'Wow, that's the craziest thing I ever saw,' or they say, 'Wow, that really touched me,' " says Moning. No doubt, he'll keep on experimenting until "Black Coffee" gets every one of the desired responses.

"Black Coffee" airs as part ofVideo Radio on Fridays at 9 p.m. on Time Warner channels 17, 66, 82 or 96, Optel channels 7 or 69 and Kingwood Cablevision channel 98. For more information, call (281)287-9500.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey