Playing a lead role in HBO’s award-winning Treme has tugged at actor Wendell Pierce’s emotions a lot during the past few years. But he says the most poignant moment of the series for him was a scene in which he didn’t appear.
Even in the light-hearted atmosphere of a French Quarter event marking the release of the series’ Season 1 DVD this past Wednesday, New Orleans native Pierce grew teary-eyed as he recalled the scene.
"There’s a moment in the pilot that’s really hard to talk about," he said, referring to the scene when Clarke Peters’ character Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, who lost everything in the Katrina flood, dons full Mardi Gras Indian regalia and does a slow, somber chant in an unlighted street in the dead of night.
"When Clarke comes out of the darkness in his full suit, that breaks my heart," Pierce said. "It’s the moment that really defines the show for me. It’s the darkest, deepest part of despair, and there’s this sense of pride and determination, and revelation, that we will come back in spite of everything."
Pierce believes the HBO series has affected perceptions of New Orleans far outside the local area. He’s noticed it when he travels and talks about the city. "There’s this great curiosity about the culture people are seeing on TV, and they see it as strange and unique. They want to know, ‘Is that really how it goes down?’ "
He thinks the show has altered a common, simplistic view of the city.
"Before, people always saw this as a sort of frat-boy town – where you go and party and get drunk and eat and then you go home," he said. "Now they’re seeing it for the bohemia, the northernmost Caribbean city that it is, and the historic nature of the culture."
Pierce is spending a lot of time here these days. His parents’ home was among the Katrina flood casualties, and he has since crusaded for the rebuilding of their Pontchartrain Park neighborhood. He established a community development corporation focused on the area’s restoration, and he says between that and the HBO series, he has little time for anything else.
"I commute between New Orleans and LA like I’m going Uptown on a bus," he said.
During Wednesday’s event at the Louisiana Music Factory, buyers who picked up the newly released DVD and the CD soundtrack from Treme Season 1 could have their purchase signed by cast members and the series’ creator, David Simon. On hand with Simon and Pierce were Peters; Steve Zahn (Davis McAlary); Khandi Alexander (LaDonna Batiste-Williams); Rob Brown (Delmond Lambreaux); and Lucia Micarelli, whose extraordinary real-life violin talents are showcased in her portrayal of the character Annie.
The cast chatted with reporters, clowned and posed for photos in an upstairs room of the factory before the public signing. Zahn and Micarelli, whose onscreen characters currently are romantically linked, teased and hugged each other for the camera. Alexander and Peters linked arms as they left the room. And talk of Jazz Fest drifted through the air.
Asked if she had sampled Jazz Fest, Alexander, a New Yorker, shouted "Absolutely!"
"Of course I went to see Bon Jovi. I can’t believe Richie Sambora wasn’t there," she said of the group’s famous guitarist who recently sought treatment for alcoholism. "But they were great anyhow. I love ’em."
Treme: The Complete First Season DVD and Blu-ray sets are available in stores starting at $60. Treme: Music from the HBO Original Series, Season 1 includes 19 tracks and is also available in stores, for $15.