There are times when life proves better than fiction.
Just ask the friends behind a new TV crime series that depicts life in Camden. The city has all the elements to make for a larger-than-life drama: crime, drugs, violence, politics, corruption, poverty, and hardworking people struggling to survive and capture their dreams in one of the most dangerous cities in America.
The title of the fictional series, Chase Street, is a play on words for the theme behind the plot, said Denny Brown, the creator and one of the executive producers. Everyone is chasing something:
The politicians are chasing power. The drug kingpins are chasing money; their customers are chasing drugs. Ordinary folks who live in the city of about 71,000 are chasing an elusive American dream.
"The world is curious about Camden. All you hear is negativity about Camden," said Nathaniel Banks, also a producer. "We have so much to tell."
For years, Camden has struggled to emerge from its decline as a manufacturing hub on the Delaware River that left the city as one of the poorest and most violent places to live. A new policing approach has been credited with cutting the murder rate and several companies have moved into the city, but pockets of despair remain.
Brown, a former Camden High basketball star, came up with the idea for the series and recruited several friends to team up for the project, which is being shopped to Netflix, Amazon, and others. He spent years writing and rewriting Chase Street and raising funds until it was ready for production. Some have described it as a cross between the popular crime dramas The Wire and The Sopranos.
Growing up Camden, Brown said, he heard stories about politics in the city, along with life on the streets where drug lords and gang leaders have reigned with terror in neighborhoods. His cousin, Melvin "Randy" Primas. became Camden's first African American mayor in 1981 after his predecessor was arrested by the FBI in the Abscam scandal.
"I had the idea years ago. I just didn't have a title," said Brown, 48.
Although fictionalized, the series has themes that the producers hope will give it a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The characters bear striking resemblance to some once-prominent Camden newsmakers who were brought down by scandals that stretched from City Hall to drug corners.
The series' main character is Aaron "Pooh" Best, a former NBA star and Wall Street executive who returns to Camden to deal with family drama and a drug-dealing half-brother, "Spark," and gets "pulled into politics" as power brokers in the city recruit him to replace the scandal-riddled mayor.
Because no story about Camden would be complete without a local kingmaker, there is Rose Fiori, who runs the city and South Jersey politics with an iron fist. She seeks to recruit Best, played by Leland Martin, for a spot on City Council and eventually in City Hall to replace the former mayor, who has been ousted on corruption charges and convicted.
"But in Camden, politics is never a done deal, and Rose's best-laid plans are about to be derailed," promises a trailer.
The series premiere debuts with two shows on March 10 at the AMC Theater in Cherry Hill. The producers have rented four viewing rooms and expect to sell out more than 1,400 seats.
The series was filmed almost entirely in Camden, in neighborhood barbershops, restaurants, grocery stores, and other locations. There is a scene at Carl Miller Funeral Home with a service for a victim of mistaken identity conducted by Amir Khan, a well-known South Jersey pastor and former Camden mayoral candidate. Three episodes have been filmed and three more are coming soon, the producers said.
"I'm so proud to be part of history," said Nicky Price, owner of the Progressive Camden Democrat Club, a popular social club in the Centerville section featured in the series. "We have all walks of life who come through here."
Much of the cast is from the city, aspiring actors and ordinary people, like Rocco DePersia, a prominent Haddonfield defense attorney who plays a powerful waterfront boss. "It's pretty exciting," DePersia, a Camden native, said in an interview Wednesday.
But there are some high-profile actors, too, and more are being recruited to join the cast. Already there are a few, including Clifton Powell, who has played supporting roles in films including Ray and Rush Hour. He runs a drug organization in Chase Street.
Other actors in the series are Jade Yorker, from the Gridiron Gang, Tyrell Baker, from The Wire, and Philadelphia rap star Gillie da Kid. Banks said the team is in talks with a few others, including cast members from The Sopranos.
The story line was mostly scripted by Brown and Thomas Freeman Jr. Freeman, 38, who grew up in Burlington Township, wrote a book about one of Camden's most notorious drug dealers, Lucas Torres, a kingpin who amassed a fortune and was shot 32 times before being convicted of drug charges.
There is an actual Chase Street in Camden, a gritty block just off Mount Ephraim Avenue, where DePersia lived as a youngster. But the series is based on what once was a thriving culture of corruption in Camden and other urban communities, Banks said.
"There is a Chase Street in every city," said Banks, 53.
The response to Chase Street has been positive. A trailer for the series on YouTube has more than one million views.
The Interstate Media producers have been shopping the series to Netflix, Amazon, and the Urban Movie Channel, along with other production companies. They met last year with entertainment executive Suzanne de Passe, the cochair of the de Passe Jones Entertainment group, who helped develop the Jackson 5 while working as a creative assistant to Berry Gordy at Motown in Detroit.
They raised money and started a GoFundMe campaign to produce the first three episodes. Proceeds from the premiere will be used to film three more segments. Filming is expected to resume in about two weeks. The writers are keeping the plot under raps. Stay tuned.
"It's going to be mind-boggling," said Bobby Rand, 36, a producer and actor in the series. "We have a lot of stories to tell."
There will be two showings of Chase Street on March 10 at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at the AMC Loews Theatre, Rt. 38, Cherry Hill, NJ. Advance tickets are required.