HBO’s “Treme” aims for authentic look at post-Katrina New Orleans

Wendell Pierce plays struggling musician Antoine Batiste in HBO's "Treme."
Wendell Pierce plays struggling musician Antoine Batiste in HBO's "Treme."

By Stacey Harrison

During his time playing Bunk Moreland on The Wire, Wendell Pierce often regaled the Baltimore cast and crew with stories of his hometown of New Orleans — the food, the music, the culture. If only they could see it for themselves.

That was before Hurricane Katrina. The city he showed them during the production of Treme, more than four years after the unprecedented destruction, still had areas that didn’t require much work from the crew to make it look like only three months had passed.

No one knows the struggles the city has faced better than Pierce, who grew up in New Orleans, and has been one of the more highly visible champions of the rebuilding. Aside from his appearance in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, Pierce has fronted an organization dedicated to helping re-establish the city’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.

So when his old Wire cohorts, David Simon and Eric Overmyer, said they were creating a show for HBO about post-Katrina New Orleans, and that they had written the main role with him in mind, Pierce seized the opportunity.

“I was flattered and humbled that they would think of me,” he said. “It becomes more than a job, it becomes a great responsibility. It becomes this great cathartic moment, especially in this time for New Orleans when we’re trying to recover, to have this opportunity to bring the character and this show to life while I’m also struggling with developments and trying to bring my own neighborhood back to life. In our darkest hour, I feel it’s like a bright, shining light.”

Treme, which takes its name from the New Orleans neighborhood often credited with giving birth to jazz, premieres Sunday on HBO. Like The Wire — the show everyone will compare it to — it has a leisurely pace, far more concerned with atmosphere, authenticity and character development than any contrived mechanisms of plot. It’s helpful to think of the first few episodes as the opening chapters of a book, which establish the story and set a tone far more deliberate than most TV dramas. Close viewing will be rewarded as the season continues, and, if the participants achieve their goal, audiences will have a much more nuanced understanding of the Crescent City than previous screen portrayals have allowed.

Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a trombone player barely getting by on whatever gig comes his way. Often that entails playing a jazz funeral — a New Orleans tradition in which musicians and mourners march parade-style to the cemetery. He has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, Ladonna (Khandi Alexander), a tavern owner who has remarried and splits her time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The other characters include a displaced Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters), his musician son (Rob Brown), a struggling restaurant owner (Kim Dickens), a wisecracking radio DJ (Steve Zahn), a civil activist (John Goodman) and his attorney wife (Melissa Leo). Their stories intersect on occasion and, as with The Wire, the time invested in character development makes their encounters all the richer for the viewer.

While so many Hollywood depictions reduce New Orleans to “Mardi Gras every day,” Pierce believes Treme will be the one to finally get it right. That’s because of the effort put in by people like Overmyer, a New Orleans transplant for the past 20 years, who says accurately portraying the city comes down to letting the people who live there have input and, in many cases, do it themselves.

“We’re trying to get at what the culture’s like, what the music’s like, how people really talk,” he said. “We’re just spending a little more time here. We’re trying to let a lot of the local people speak for themselves instead of it all being done by outsiders. We’re just asking questions, saying, ‘How would you do it?’ You get these faces you’ve never seen anywhere else and you get these accents you’ve never heard anywhere else.”

One accent you won’t hear, Overmyer is quick to point out, is the exaggerated cher-peppered drawl used by Dennis Quaid’s character in The Big Easy. Then there’s that Southern-movie standard of the overhead ceiling fan shot, where all the characters are bathing in sweat, as though there is no such thing as air-conditioning south of the Mason-Dixon Line. None of that here.

In striving for authenticity, several parts on Treme are played by real-life New Orleanians — musicians, some widely known like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and others who are local legends, like James Andrews, Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins.

Standing alongside these musicians and acting like he belonged there with them playing his trombone presented Pierce his biggest challenge.

“That’s the most terrifying aspect for me,” he said. “I know that all my boys are going to be watching me with a real critical eye. Then there are all these musicians I have to play with, who I’ve been a big fan of for a long time. I get weak in the knees, man. They say, ‘All right, we’re ready for you on the set,’ and it’s nerve-wracking.”

Pierce has a safety net in having jazz man Stafford Agee be his sound double, but while it’s Agee’s playing that audiences will hear, Pierce said that he plays live during filming, and jokes that one day he hopes to be good enough to “put Stafford out of a job.”

Peters, another holdover from The Wire, said it’s been invaluable for him having the locals present. He had been to New Orleans only once before production started, and his role requires a deep, intimate knowledge of neighborhood traditions. In one of the first episode’s most memorable scenes, he must strut convincingly down a nearly deserted street in full Indian chief regalia — an elaborate suit of feathers and beads — in order to persuade someone to help with the cleanup.

He’s gained an appreciation for the city since he’s been there, and knows that Treme can play a key part in making sure its story is told.

“This is a city that’s depressed,” he said. “They put on a real good front. Well, they did put on a real good front until the Saints won [this year’s Super Bowl], and now they can legitimately smile. Prior to then, I think there was a hollowness and a sadness behind the smiles, because of the loss. The workforce isn’t back here, the people aren’t back here the way they were before. The only reason New Orleans exists [after Katrina] besides the fantastic architecture and all that is because of the music and the food. Other than that, you’re going to see history standing still. What keeps people coming back is that music and that food.”

Check back in the coming days for extended interviews with Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. And don’t miss Treme when it airs Sundays at 10pm ET on HBO.

Photo: Credit: Skip Bolen/HBO