News Column

Art imitates life as homeless Houstonians work on film about urban underworld

November 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 23--Take one of Scene 13 ended with the director's growl. "That's the only bad thing you have to say," he admonished a screen gangster who had garbled a street epithet, "so be very clear about it." The actor nodded and readied for another take.

More false starts were to come, but as the cameras rolled at St. John's United Methodist Church, Houston showbiz veteran Donn Kizzee was ecstatic. The short promotional trailer for his proposed TV miniseries depicting FBI agents posing as homeless people to battle crime finally was being filmed. Beneath the high spirits, though, lurked a poignant undercurrent: Kizzee and most of his actors are themselves homeless.

Based on Kizzee's short story, "Chameleon," the screenplay features sympathetic characters adrift in a world of drug trafficking, bogus preachers and what Kizzee termed "hot-button issues."

"The whole idea behind 'Chameleon,'?" he said, "is redemption. You can never go too far, do so much wrong that God cannot salvage you."

The six-minute promotional snippet is being edited, Kizzee said. Soon it should be posted on the Internet and shopped around to studios and prospective sponsors. The ultimate goal, said director Gary Griffin, is to provide paying jobs for the approximately 50 actors involved in the project and possibly launching careers.

"These are real people and they have talent," he said.

Griffin, owner of a Houston production company, has more than two decades' experience in film and television production. Kizzee, 56, long has been active in the local theatrical scene as writer, director and actor. He worked with children's productions at Ensemble Theater, toured in musicals and, for several years, organized Producers' Summits that brought practitioners of various theater arts together in Houston.

Lifestyle change

In 2008, though, he found himself homeless.

"I had three ex-wives," he said. "I made some bad decisions, trusted some people I shouldn't have, had some jobs crater. When things go bad, one thing follows the next. I went from watching CNN with my feet up on the couch to being without a home."

Up to then, Kizzee's experience with the homeless was minimal.

"The Salvation Army was something you heard at Christmas," he said. "I'd see people sleeping on the street two blocks away ... but that's about as far as it went. Since then, I've met accountants on the street, medical school graduates, former attorneys. I met a cab driver with two doctorates. So, this changed my view, yes. There's a lot more out there than people think."

The idea for "Chameleon" came to him as he awoke from a sound sleep at a Salvation Army shelter at 3 a.m.

"It was divine; I don't know any other way to explain it," he said. "The spirit spoke to me ... God was saying he wanted me to speak for people who can't speak for themselves."

In crafting his story, Kizzee said he sought to create characters the actors would recognize from their lives. Dealing with a transient cast presented challenges. Some left the production when they found jobs. Others were unreliable because of substance abuse.

'Get us out of the rut'

For many of the selected actors, Griffin added, "Chameleon" seemed to "let them take charge of their lives again."

One of the actors, Ruben Tamez Jr., mused about the project as he waited for the klieg lights to be turned on and the action to begin.

"This is certain to awaken those who strive to succeed in life," said Tamez, a sometime professional actor who recently spent a year on the streets. "It should make us remember that at one time in life we were successful and get us out of the rut, help us let the pain go and make it again."

As Tamez philosophized, others rehearsed their lines or sat stoically awaiting the arrival of a hairdresser to tweak their look.

Gillis Frison struggled to get into character as a mobster.

"I'm not that type," he said, adding that he relies on gangster movies for inspiration. "I feed off their personalities, but it's still not easy."

Kenneth Grimes, cast as a minister, faced an even tougher challenge. "I have to learn the way of being Christlike," he said. "To play a pastor, you have to put yourself in his shoes, think what he would say."

He mulled his lines while watching his fellow actors take another stab at the church scene.

"I'm anxious," he said, "but I'm blessed to get this opportunity. It's the first leg on my new journey."

___

(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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