David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s HBO series Treme took docudrama well past its previous boundaries, blurring the distinctions between the actual historical figures that populated the narrative and the fictional characters who were based on real New Orleanians.
Wendell Pierce, as the character Antoine Batiste, was at the vortex of this swiftly moving cultural identity tale. Batiste, a down-and-out trombonist trying to eke out a living on the fringe after the 2005 flood, grappled with the realities that working musicians faced as they returned to New Orleans to re-establish their lives in a city that no longer resembled the one they had been forcibly dispossessed from. Most of their homes were gone along with much of the social structure in the neighborhoods that had sustained them. The narrative implied that the sweet-and-easy hustle Batiste enjoyed before Katrina had morphed into a grim tale of survival as he failed in his attempts to grow into the responsibilities of a stable relationship, fatherhood and his place in the world as a working musician. At the beginning of season three, Batiste was still trying to scam his way through life. He witnessed the clash Glen David Andrews and Derek Tabb had with the police at a second line for Kerwin James and reasoned that he needed to get arrested to raise his profile in the community. Batiste had an existential crisis and questioned everything about his life, even his music, thinking he had to learn to play bop instead of traditional New Orleans jazz. Batiste’s breakthroughs only started to come when he accepted himself for who he was and became a band teacher, bringing the kind of guidance and support to his students that he was unable to provide to his own sons, who were unwilling to follow in their father’s footsteps.
Batiste’s dilemma is a parable for New Orleans itself and Pierce animates this story with bemused forbearance. As a New Orleans native, it’s his city he’s walking through and he plays his character with such force that he becomes a metaphor for the unsavory side of the city’s music business. Where all the actual New Orleans musicians in Treme are treated with the greatest respect, Batiste is allowed to act out some of the negative stereotypes of the New Orleans musician as a partying hustler with a beat-up trombone who travels around the city without an instrument case. His growth in season three as both a musician and a man continues in the final episodes of Treme.
In the real world, Pierce is an accomplished New Orleans actor who’s also a major player in the city’s Katrina recovery, national political activist, and fundraiser for President Obama. The narrative trajectory Pierce brings to the Batiste character in Treme as he finds truth in self-actualization and charitable acts is mirrored by his real-world accomplishments in New Orleans, helping to rebuild sections of the neighborhood in which he was raised, Pontchartrain Park, and opening up healthy food markets in poor neighborhoods through his Sterling Farms grocery chain.
After Katrina, the entire city was forcibly depopulated and its poorest citizens were given no means to return home. Something essential about New Orleans was lost after the flood. And yet people came back determined to restore the culture. It seems to me this is a large part of what Treme was about, and to those of us who were still in the process of trying to nurture the return of the culture, Treme was a confirmation that there were forces out there who were behind us.
What we were trying to do with Treme was be as authentic as possible, as real as possible. What a lot of people responded to is the idea that there’s nothing to be ashamed of to recognize that you still have some concerns about losing your culture. Because culture is the way you deal with life; it’s who you are. What your housing systems are. I was talking about this on CNN the other night. Those who are benefitting from the new New Orleans have to understand that their good fortune comes at the expense of a lot of people’s misfortune. It’s wonderful that people are repopulating New Orleans and bringing it back through gentrification, but understand that it’s not by chance. People who lived in the Bywater before the storm, they knew what a wonderful neighborhood it was, and they wanted to try to bring it back. Those who are able to do that now should understand that they are reaping the benefits that others who were there don’t enjoy. They can walk into a bank and get a loan. But there were people who’d paid their insurance policies for decades who were cut out of this process. Their policies were ignored, or they were paid only a few hundred dollars to rebuild.
We also knew we could possibly lose the culture altogether, which made people keenly aware that you can’t take that culture for granted. So you find people who are New Orleanians, lived here their whole life, coming to their first second lines. I’ve seen people who’ve lived their whole lives in New Orleans decide to come and see for the first time what an Indian practice is all about. People who lived near Treme who had never gone to Treme whatsoever who would say, ‘I would go to the French Quarter and was told never to cross Rampart Street and I never have.’ So the evolution of waking up the cultural fire in people who had never paid attention to this culture is the other side of that two-sided coin.
If you’ve lived in New Orleans, watching Treme is almost a dreamscape; an echo of what was happening to you. The settings were like characters.
One of the biggest stars in Treme is the city itself. The world that we live in itself is New Orleans. The reason we go and see art is because we recognize in it the world that we are creating. It’s a place where we find out who we are as a society, as a group. Art reflects more than the individual; art reflects the community as a whole. It’s about us finding out who we are and that’s the wonderful thing about Treme and I identify it as a piece of art more than anything else.
Treme has become a forum for the people of New Orleans to reflect on who we are as a whole: how good, how bad; our strengths and weaknesses, and reflect on what is important to us. What are our values? That’s why, for me, it’s been art imitating life and life imitating art. Not just a television show. Years from now, people will be able to pull out those DVDs and see a cultural document of what the community has gone through in these years. It will be a way for people to actually tangibly connect to our culture and hopefully keep it living.
Although you’re playing a fictional character, it’s an archetype of New Orleans, a musician. You must have fantasized about being a musician at some point in your life.
To be a little boy growing up in New Orleans at some point in your life, you always fantasize about being a musician. I was a trumpet player at Osborne Elementary School for two weeks before I had to turn in my trumpet because I wasn’t that good at it. I also went to school with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick Jr. and Kent Jordan and all of those guys, so I was around some of the best musicians in the world. Even as they were studying back then as teenagers, I knew what they were doing. So now as an actor I get to explore all those different worlds I had an interest in. When this opportunity came up, I was floored, because I knew this would be my chance to be the musician I always wanted to be. To be a New Orleans musician is one of the greatest honors in the world. It’s truly, truly a blessing.
Was it at Benjamin Franklin high school when you first decided you would be an actor?
I remember I went to an open house at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts [NOCCA] and it opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. I was always interested in music and all of that but I had an interest in acting since I was a child. I was interested in football and then NOCCA opened my eyes to other possibilities. I had the best of both worlds because I got to stay at Ben Franklin and go to NOCCA. It really clarified the vision of what I wanted to do. Once I left NOCCA and went to Juilliard, it solidified.
Your group was part of a generation of great New Orleans artists.
Someone will take the time to verify that the musicians who came out of there at that time—really under the auspices of Ellis Marsalis and Clyde Kerr, Alvin Batiste and others—will be compared to the Impressionists of Paris, to the Hudson Valley painters. It will be noted as a time of great creativity, because a lot of great musicians came out of there in the past couple of decades. And it is still going on.
One of the things that happened after the flood is that a lot of the elders were incapacitated. They may not have perished in the flood, but they were compromised on life issues, on health issues. They weren’t able to carry through what elders do in society. You guys had to step up and teach.
What happens is you start to realize that they were the Moses Generation. They passed on to us this great legacy, us being the “Joshua Generation.” We had to wake up and realize we had a great responsibility and we owed them a great debt. We had to be the men and women they were preparing us to be. That was what moving home and doing Treme was all about for me.
Twenty years from now, when a child asks me, ‘During New Orleans’ darkest hour, what did you do?’ I will have an answer. Treme is a part of that; the reason why I’m involved with the Pontchartrain Park development is part of that; starting Sterling Farms grocery-store chain is part of that. Just bringing solutions to the table to help heal the city that we all love, to help it survive. We have constant reminders of how fast it could have all gone away. The struggle is ongoing but it could have all gone away. We went through that and came out stronger, hopefully.
There was a total failure by the government on the federal, state and local level. It was the people who brought the city back. What happened in New Orleans is probably the greatest example of grassroots civic activism in recent times.
Absolutely. If it wasn’t for the people, it would have been all over. There’s always been an underlying current of grassroots civic activism in the city through the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. When folks couldn’t buy insurance, they pooled their money in the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. That social-aid aspect is key. If your mama gets sick, they’ll take care of you. If your daddy dies, they’re gonna send him off right. People always remember the pleasure part but it’s the social aid that comes first. It’s very much a part of our rich history in New Orleans, that kind of grass roots activism—to take care of oneself and one’s community.
Your character Antoine Batiste has to go through an existential crisis, questions who he is and faces his failures, but finds himself through his epiphany with Lionel Ferbos and from working with the children in the school band.
He finds himself. He was doing the best he could to be the ne’er-do-well musician—‘I don’t care about anything else I just wanna play my music’—and he realizes over the course of different things that happen in his life that he can’t afford to do that. He becomes a better musician because of what he finds out by working with the children. He finds out that he’s part of a legacy of music that’s handed down from generation to generation—the knowledge of the music that is passed on, not just the ability to play but to play in the style and the tradition of the music that is passed on to you. He sees it through Lionel Ferbos; he sees it through Dr. Michael White; and he sees it through the children and the impact that the music has on them. So by trying to become a better musician ultimately he becomes a better man.
Did you have input in that character development?
The writers always kept the arc of what was going to happen close to the vest. I never knew what was going to happen next. It’s David Simon’s belief to do that.
So you were growing with the character.
Yeah, I grew not just as a musician, but as a New Orleanian. I felt I found more of my culture, became more a part of my culture. It’s so rare to find a city that lives its culture as much as we do.
The whole experience must have been especially dreamlike to you, then.
It was a dream come true. It was an opportunity for me to spend some time with my mother. She passed during the last season as we were filming the last episode. So this time will be a cherished memory: the time I got to spend with her in her last days and these years when I got to say something about the place where I grew up and I love.
Antoine’s personal narrative arc parallels your own quest to help rebuild the city through your efforts in Pontchartrain Park.
My parents were so beautiful and treated me so well and my community gave us the necessary means to go out and be successful men and women in the world. Then the neighborhood was destroyed in the deepest part of the flooding. You realize that you can’t take it for granted. You have to step up and salvage as much as you can of what that Moses generation passed on to you and that was what motivated me. What has been happening to me is definitely a parallel to the growth that the character of Antoine Batiste experienced. That’s why Treme for me was art imitating life and life imitating art. It will be that great cultural document that years from now we will be able to look back and learn from it. And then it will be that cherished jewel of a time that I got to spend with both of my parents and especially my mother in what were her final years. To have those lessons that she taught me reaffirmed, the reaffirmation of her values, of what to fight for, the value of ownership. There are those who are going to work in your best interests; there are those who are going to be corrupt; there are those who are going to do wrong. But, in spite of everything, you have to fight hard and live your life to its fullest.
What’s going on with the Pontchartrain Park Development?
We have two-dozen homes finished, nearly 30 overall, and we’re selling them. The neighborhood is rebounding in fits and starts like it is all over New Orleans. We have made sure that over the years our advocacy would bring back the Bartholomew golf course in Pontchartrain Park. We have a new charter school, the same school that my mother was a teacher at for almost her entire career. We’re building houses on some lots where people moved away. It’s going well. With all the fits and starts and all the obstacles and challenges … in spite of everything, we’re still here. We have a wonderful Fourth of July celebration every year that we didn’t have before the storm. We have a big picnic and fireworks and a movie. It’s a real illustration of how important it is to stick together.
What’s happening with Sterling Farms?
Sterling Farms is going great. We’ve had difficulties, actually, opening stores in the city. We had to open our first store in Marrero. It’s unfortunate that, even though we’re a New Orleans-based company, our next store will probably open in Atlanta, then in another city in Louisiana. We’ve had inquiries from all over the country. But we can’t get our footing in New Orleans.
What’s the problem?
It’s New Orleans [sighs]. New Orleans is difficult. There’s a political minefield that you have to go through. We had a store in the lower Ninth Ward that was gonna be our initial store but the bank was called in by the mayor—and when they came out of the meeting, they were not doing it. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that done eventually. We’re trying to bring fresh produce and quality food to the community. We had the First Lady come down and visit the store in Marrero last week. We had the congressional Black Caucus visit the store. So it’s going well. We’re trying to build a loyalty to the stores in the communities. Like any business, you’ve got a tiger by the tail, but we’re coming up on the anniversary of our first grocery store and we’re two years into the project itself. It’s not what we expected to do but it’s something that evolved out of what was going on around us. It’s another thing like what happened to Antoine. He didn’t expect to be a schoolteacher.