Originally published 8/29/15
I spoke backstage with Wendell Pierce - most famous for his HBO series roles as Detective Moreland in The Wire and as musician Antoine Batiste in the Post-Katrina world of Treme - this summer on the closing weekend of Brothers from the Bottom, a critically-acclaimed play about gentrification in New Orleans after the storm, in which Pierce played a lead role both on stage and in production.
The play is set in New Orleans, and is charmingly colored by the city’s cultural idiosyncrasies. Still, the script and its performance hold within them a thematic universality (exemplified by its debut run in Brooklyn at The Billie Holiday Theatre) so that anyone in urban America, or anyone empathetic of its fate, can soul-search and find where they stand.
In our interview, Wendell Pierce makes it very clear where he stands on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the rocky recovery that followed. Having watched the play the night before, I caught up with Pierce an hour before Brother’s penultimate showing to share notes and thoughts about art as activism; who bears the most responsibility for the poor governmental response during Katrina; challenging the city and country’s confederate history; and his hopes/fears for New Orleans going forward.
Art as activism Q: The curtain speech for Brothers From the Bottom mentioned how in many artistic endeavors the audience is beseeched to sit back and enjoy the show. You all, the cast and the producers of Brothers From the Bottom, asked the audience “to lean in and listen,” as the play held a mirror up to society, as you put it. So many of the projects you’ve been involved in, as an actor, have had their elements of comic relief, but are anchored by an underlying social commentary. What about you as an actor, as a man, attracts you to those types of projects?
Pierce: Well I feel as though that’s the central role of art. The byproduct of art is entertainment. But the role of art is to be what thoughts are to an individual when we lie awake at night and contemplate our lives - where we’ve been, where we hope to go. We declare what is important to us, and then chart a course of meaning and purpose in our lives. That is what the communal nature of art should always be. And what’s happened is we don’t teach our kids art’s importance in their lives and how it can be life changing, life-affirming. It is not a superficial thing.
I have another job (on a show) - I won’t name names - that doesn’t have that much weight to it because, look, it has a different agenda... That’s what we learned on “The Wire.” David Simon [showrunner/writer/producer of The Wire and Treme] said, “people will invest the time.” If you don’t speak to the least common denominator and instead take the time to really invest in development of character and story, people will invest their time because that’s how authors do a book. That’s the sort of work that I want to do, and that leads me to doing pieces like Brothers From the Bottom.
Dealing with the emotional trauma of evacuation and witnessing the aftermath from afar Pierce: You ask any New Orleanian what they felt like and where they were when they first heard [Louis Armstrong’s] song in the moments after Katrina, [singing] Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? And miss her each night and day - no matter where you were in the world, when you heard that song, you thought: there’s a strong possibility that we may not see this city ever again - or at least not in the form we recognize.
I have tapes of my father, from 10 years ago when we were cleaning out the house [The Pierce’s home in Pontchartrain Park was severely flooded]. I hadn’t seen them. So I asked a media outlet to transfer them into a visible format and last night saw them for the first time, 10 years later. And I saw my father, at eighty years old, standing before the destruction, going, “I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to come back.” It was heartbreaking then to see it, but triumphant now to see it, because he is home - he’s ninety years old.
Pre-production research into his role as Clarence Thomas for HBO’s ‘Confirmation’ and New Orleans’ living history Pierce: We are sitting in the rail station where Plessy bought the ticket. [The station is now NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, or NOCCA, opened in 1973 as a professional arts training center for secondary school-age children. Pierce is an alumnus.] He boarded the train a block away - and was stopped - and the tracks still rumble right here.
The Charleston massacre and whether Confederate monuments in the city should be taken down, as the mayor has suggested the city do upon its tricentennial anniversary in 2018.
Q: I’m sure you heard of the domestic terrorism committed in Charleston [21 year-old Dylann Roof’s politically inspired, confederate flag prefaced, massacre of nine black churchgoers]. New Orleans is praised - revered even - for its racial harmony, relative to the rest of the South, but I think people from here understand that there are many asterisks that accompany that praise. We don’t have confederate battle flags flying over our government buildings here. But we do have other memorials of the Confederacy: Lee Circle [The statue of General Lee faces north so that he never turns his back on his enemies], Robert E Lee Boulevard, Jefferson Davis Boulevard, Beauregard Circle in City Park...Are these names and places so deeply ingrained into our vernacular and setting, and have gone on for so long, that maybe they’re even detached from their original meaning? That, despite their offensive history, they should just remain?
Pierce: It is a mis-education to say that New Orleans is a place of wonderful racial harmony. There’s people that like to perpetuate that idea, so they don’t have to deal with the hard truths. But I like the fact that you define what happened in Charleston as domestic terrorism. It needs to be defined like that. Not just for the symbolic nature of it, but for the policy that goes with it. The policy in place with federal government, is that when something is declared a terrorist organization, that means all resources go to destroying, dismantling that organization, because they see it as a threat to the security of the United States. When are we gonna make that same threat on the White Citizens’ Council and on the Ku Klux Klan?
I want people to have the right to wave the confederate flag. Wave it. You have every right. I want you to. Now I know where you stand [chuckling]. That’s what America’s all about, freedom, of expression. But no government that I pay tax dollars to should ever fly that flag.
Q: So, New Orleans’ confederate monuments should be changed?
Pierce: Yeah, it’s not about history. We need to declare them for who they were.
The local and federal governments’ prioritization of tax dollars Pierce: We spend billions to subsidize and give corporate welfare to oil companies, but say hey, to give some single mother some assistance is ‘draining our treasury and causing great deficits.’ Even in this city, we have private nonprofit groups who are getting tax dollars from us. We spend more money in tax dollars here on the Audubon Institute (which runs the zoo and aquarium) than police and firemen because we say [Audubon] generates all kind of economy. I’m like, I understand that; but damn, more than the police and cops? And more than the infrastructure?
How a lack of interaction across race/class perpetuates disparate policymaking decisions. Pierce: A Chief of Staff of an Orleans Parish council person said resources should not be going to the Lower Ninth Ward. In the same conversation, she admitted she had never been to the Lower Ninth Ward in her entire life - a middle aged woman...but she never set foot in the Lower Ninth Ward.
I wish poor people of color had the same political pull to make the same demands on the infrastructure changes that they’re doing on Louisiana Avenue, and Napoleon Avenue. Why don’t you see that same thing on avenues in the Lower Ninth Ward or on the streets of Bullard in The East? New Orleans East was wiped out. ‘The Sliver by the River’ (the set of disproportionately whiter, wealthier neighborhoods that did not experience major flooding during Katrina) was not.
The federal government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina Pierce: We can be anywhere in the world in 48 hours with the 82nd Airborne. Bush saw New Orleans, a predominantly poor, African-American community, and abandoned us - period. And now everybody wants to have this nuanced, revisionist history.What did Bush do? He just flew over, did a flyover, ‘They’ll figure it out.’ So, we were abandoned by the federal government. And the city was destroyed by the federal government, because of the Army Corps of Engineers. The system that they put up failed and it was negligently designed and built - period.
Disaster tourism in New Orleans in the months after the storm, as outlined by a powerful episode-ending scene in HBO’s Treme:
Pierce: Well, it was a disaster on television and media. And I don’t fault people who were having a great desire to know more, and see it. But ultimately, what was offensive about it is people who profiteered off of the disaster, and that’s what the scene’s about. Understanding this is not just a spectacle, it’s spiritual, and you should not be profiting off it. You should pay some respect to it...Our culture comes from the evolution of dealing with being marginalized...that’s why it is a call to action when you hear Indian Red. That’s the history behind Indian Red: “We don’t bow down. We don’t know how. Indian Red.”
‘Indian Red,’ is a classic song in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Mardi Gras Indians date back in primordial form to antebellum times when enslaved Africans would run away to the bayous and swamps where the local Native Americans tribes would offer refuge - and community, often intermixing, causing a hybridization of culture. Black New Orleanians since then, in an increasingly organized fashion, have formed tribes and “masked” as Indians during carnival season and other important local holidays out of joyful reverence for Indian tradition.
On the underlying economic engine and community organizing aspects behind Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs - the groups that organize second line parades and carnival season ‘float’ parades. Pierce: We understand the pleasure part. It’s pleasurable - having the music parades. But our second line culture comes out of overcoming Jim Crow. So when you see a second line, always look behind, because that’s where the commerce is. We’re literally bringing commerce into the neighborhood, to the man selling barbecue, treats, beers. We stop at a restaurant and bar. We literally dance people into hunger and thirst, and then they’re gonna go spend money at your restaurant. [laughs]. The very thing that we call our culture - that culture that we celebrate in the second line and in Mardi Gras Indians - comes out of a sense of pride, a sense of self-reliance, and a sense of community.
It’s a concept that came out of ‘We can’t get insurance. We can’t get burial plots. We can’t get health insurance. So we’re going to pool our own money, and make sure that the members of our social aid club are taken care of...Your momma dies, we’re gonna send her off nice. Your daddy dies, or your daddy gets sick, we’re going to make sure you, as a member, have something to take care of everything.’ Those are social aid clubs...It is a manifestation of grassroots economic development.
HBO’s Treme, Jazz Funeral Second Line Scene:
His hopes and fears for the New Orleans of the future Pierce: “The most hopeful thing about New Orleans is the culture that we created centuries ago...We’ll be an identifiable cultural milestone long after we’re gone. That will always define New Orleans, whether it becomes the Lost City of Atlantis never to be rebuilt, or becomes the thriving city that it can be, is on its’ way to. The thing is ‘the adults’ who claim they love New Orleans, but they don’t. They hate New Orleans’ culture, and they’ll do everything to suppress it, change it, and have revisionist history because they can’t deal with America’s original sin of slavery, which is so on the surface here. And it’s those people that we’re going to continually have to battle. So you can be as racist as you want. Fly the confederate flag, carry the flag all you want, ‘yee-haw!’ all you want. I’m cool with that. But once you put it into policy, then you’re affecting people’s lives to their detriment. And so, that’s what concerns me about the next 10 years of New Orleans. That the gentrification that’s happening is being put into policy...The thing that gives us hope is the culture. We gave something to the world over a century ago, and the truth, the authenticity of that, of our culture, cannot be remade. And that’s what I’m all about.
“King of Swing,” New Orleans native, Louis Prima’s ballad/dance number ‘Buona Sera’ is featured in Treme’s premiere and aptly depicts the simultaneous frustration and joy New Orleanians have felt in returning home, rebuilding their houses, lives, and beloved city: