Down in the Treme

This weekend Treme returns to HBO. I’m not a cable subscriber, so I’m a little slow on the uptake when it comes to cutting edge television. But Treme, created by The Wire’s David Simon, is catnip for me and anyone else who cares about New Orleans and American culture, and I devoured the first two seasons on DVD in large helpings. It is also the most significant visual representation of jazz since, well, Jazz, the PBS series directed by Ken Burns in 2000.  In terms of positioning New Orleans as a wellspring of American music, it is certainly the most direct and wide-ranging effort ever made, and probably the highest profile since the 1947 film New Orleans, a somewhat awkward piece of mythmaking that stars Louis Armstrong as a jazz man and Billie Holiday as a singing . . . domestic worker.

Perusal of Treme’s credits reveals Tom Piazza as one of the key writers for the series. Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters appeared in November 2005, arriving just as the Republic was becoming accustomed to hearing the city described as having been through some kind of cleansing in the hurricanes and flood of late summer. The opportunity to remake the city via free enterprise, to bring it into the twenty-first century, had been worth the pain. Those one-way tickets out of town for Lower Ninth residents made a lot of sense after all. After the deluge, the purge.

Piazza’s intervention was one of many launched by writers and musicians in the months after Katrina, but one of the most important contributions he and the other writers of Treme make is that as obviously as they love the city and its musical and culinary culture, romanticism is out. Focusing intently on character development as well as the labyrinth of corruption and institutional dysfunction for which New Orleans and Louisiana are well-known, they also account for the nihilistic crazy bug that makes random rape and murder punctuation points for life in a post-traumatic flood zone. Katrina did not start the violence. It did not begin the segregation that made minorities most vulnerable to the disaster. Neither did the flood wash it all away.

So the contaminated water didn’t cleanse anyone, and that idea keeps this novelistic series on point even as it tries to make the case that the rest of America, culturally speaking, could stand to be more like the Big Easy rather than the other way around. This cultural defiance is expressed in Steve Zahn’s character Davis McAlary, a Garden District refugee from another form of crazy (“Davis” as in “Jefferson”) who slums in the Treme in search of authenticity. He requires a blow or two of enlightenment upside the head in order to grasp the privilege of his own whiteness, and yet his love for the cultural gumbo of the city is a heartfelt and an effective vehicle of introduction for those who’ve never heard of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson or Allen Toussaint.

More clumsily, John Goodman’s Tulane English professor/stalled novelist (Creighton Bernette) sends bellicose YouTube missives into the ether, becoming a local celebrity even as he slips into something from the pages of Chris Rose’s harrowing post-Katrina chronicle 1 Dead in Attic. No catharsis here, either; he brings additional trauma to his teen daughter (India Ennenga) and distracted wife (Melissa Leo), an advocate/activist who literally carries her practice with her everywhere she goes. Kate Chopin certainly isn’t going to save this family.

But Treme truly shines when it focuses on black characters, whose strengths and faults remind many fans of the way Simon handled black urban life in The Wire‘s Baltimore. Khandi Alexander’s intense and bracing portrayal of tavern owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams is in many ways at the center of the drama. Her former husband, genial horndog Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) lives the life of a working musician, catching gigs as catch can, from sitting in with local legend Kermit Ruffins to playing at the airport for travellers. A running gag throughout the show is his ability to sweet talk rides from taxi drivers who will never get their fares. The gag reappears immediately after the shocking murder of a likeable character just down the street, an example of the way Treme will not let the “City that Care Forgot” off the hook.

With his permanent prideful scowl, Clarke Peters has created a memorable character in Albert Lambreaux, Mardi Gras Indian “Big Chief” whose uncompromising notions of community and justice run afoul of the authorities and insurance companies and strain relationships within his own family. He even has the temerity to correct bass legend Ron Carter during a recording session. (Dr. John, from the piano: “That’s like telling a ho how to turn a trick.”) Lambreaux stands for what his son and others in the show call “the tradition,” and it is meant in more than a musical sense. Treme’s depiction of the Big Chief and his crew on parade at night has to be one of the most remarkable portrayals of American roots culture to have been staged in mainstream television or film.

Laced with Crescent City chestnuts on the soundtrack and performance interludes that capture local culture up close, Treme’s musical reach extends from early and modern jazz to post-sixties funk to cajun to various hip-hop recombinations. More than once I’ve been reminded of what it really is like to hear Ruffins play a local venue like Le Bon Temps Roule (thanks Jill Rupert, Tulane English grad). Guests from the wider music world, from Elvis Costello to John Hiatt, drop in to add to the fun, but they are largely superfluous. New Orleans may need saving, but what is to be saved cannot be effectively exported, placing the outcome in doubt from the start. How to convince a nation to care about a local culture, no matter how significant? HBO isn’t a bad place to to try.

New Orleans, a plan of the city published in London  in 1761 after the plan by Pierre Le Blond de La Tour, 1722.

New Orleans, a plan of the city published in London in 1761 after the plan by Pierre Le Blond de La Tour, 1722.

When I last visited the city in 2006, I went with colleague Charles Chamberlain (then of the Louisiana State Museum and later a Treme consultant) to the Lower Ninth. There we found what looked like the aftermath of a war zone. On Bartholomew Street near the new Musician Village, the owner of one home, in Big Chief Lambreaux fashion, was putting his house back together from the inside out on his own, determined not to be defeated by the disaster.  He had done more than this, however. His front yard was a monument to the flood, and featured a exhibition of instruments found in the flood “played” by effigy figures he had dubbed the Katrina Band. The interior has since become something of an informal music shrine. The Katrina Band House is pure New Orleans, the museum equivalent of a second-line strut home from a particularly painful funeral, with a bit of something for the tourists mixed in. A television show will hardly bring back the dead, excuse the malfeasance and neglect, undo the political plotting and empty posturing that characterized the post-Katrina response. It can do what the best art always does: reveal through artifice something beautiful in the midst of the very real pain we endure in our lives and remind us to do better, much better.

“It’s high time that you found,” goes Allen Toussaint’s classic tune, “the same people you misused on your way up/you might meet up/on your way down.”

Some good New Orleans reading:

Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America’s Creole Soul, by Roger D. Abrahams, Nick Spitzer, John Szwed, Robert Farris Thompson

Sustaining New Orleans: Literature, Local Memory, and the Fate of a City, by Barbara Eckstein

There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Katrina, edited by Gregory Squires

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, by Walter Johnson

The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America, by Burton W. Peretti

New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, by J. Mark Souther

A little fiction:

Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Some post-Katrina music:

City That Care Forgot, Dr. John and the Lower 911

Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album 2005

Anthem, Christian Scott

After the Rain, Irma Thomas

The River in Reverse, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint

And of course Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, another HBO production and an important influence on Treme.

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