By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Davis Rogan, the inspiration for Steve Zahn's Davis McAlary, really did run for office (a State House of Representatives seat in 2003). He recalls when Simon tracked him down three years ago: "It happened the way it's supposed to happen," he says. "The way it never happens. David Simon read John Swenson's review of my CD in the local music monthly, Offbeat. He bought the CD. He liked it. He called. He hired me." By 2008, Rogan's life was such that he received the breathless e-mail now taped to his computer, from an actor about to read for the McAlary role: "I've been waiting my whole life to play you," reads one line.
Wendell Pierce is the show's hometown hero among the principal cast, for both his success away from New Orleans and his post-Katrina commitment to the place. He greets me at the offices of Community Development Corporation, through which, as president, he has spearheaded efforts to rebuild Pontchartrain Park. Gone are the colorful T-shirts, sports jackets, and jeans favored by his character, Antoine Batiste — replaced with a pinstriped suit, the tie tacked down by a fleur-de-lis pin. He recalls his first post-Katrina visit to his parents' house: "I never said it, but my goal was to get them back in that house before they died. And now, I want to save the neighborhood before it dies — or is stolen away." Politically, he says, the city must stop getting mired in the past and instead "imagine the future it deserves"; still, he sees value in revisiting the past five years. "I want people to know the story," he says. "I want to tell it. I mean, on one level, it is just telling a story, you know, which is what I'm paid to do. But I appreciate the fact that we could tell any story in the world, and we've chosen to tell this story."
In Sidney Bechet's memoir, Treat It Gentle, the late, great clarinetist's real grandfather is supplanted by Omar, a fictional figure based on a folk tale, all the better to convey stirring truths about the true origins of New Orleans jazz; on most evenings in the French Quarter, tourists gather on street corners as dubiously credentialed docents lead "Haunted History" tours. Real and imagined intermingle pointedly in New Orleans, in all walks of life.
The walls of the script room in the Treme production office are littered with facts, Post-it notes sketching out a telling chronology: October 2005 — Mayor Ray Nagin lays off 3,000 nonessential city employees. December 2005 — Ninth Ward, "Look and Leave." January 2006 — Nagin's "Chocolate City" speech. Fiction though it is, the stories told here are tethered to the way things really went down. And there's more to get right than documented incidents.
"We check ourselves a million times a day," Overmyer tells me. "On even the smallest thing." How could they not, in a city where street medians are known as "neutral grounds" and "I ain't kiddin', no" counts as proper usage? Leyh insisted upon recording the music straight from each scene, as opposed to studio dubbing — a relatively unheard-of strategy for television production, but one essential to capturing "music that sounds less true when removed from its moment." Pierce's trombone parts at each shoot are usually provided by Rebirth Brass Band regular Stafford Agee; Rob Brown, who plays the trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (son of Clark Peters's character, Albert), pulls out his Mac PowerBook to show me the videotapes from which he must memorize the fingerings to Donald Harrison's bebop-based tunes. "It is not a game," he says.
Yet Simon swears no fealty to the facts. "I know what I'm making here," he says. "I'm not making a documentary. And this is not journalism." The dramatic pursuit trumps all, he explains, "or I'm doomed." He knows that the space his series occupies, bound by real events and yet invented on the page, serves the surreality of post-Katrina New Orleans perhaps better than any straight account.
He recalls a scene, set in November 2005, in which Dickens character Janette is running out of desserts at her restaurant. After a regular customer turns down her last remaining choice, she pulls from her purse a Hubig's pie, a packaged local favorite found at corner groceries. Simon recalls a friend, a food writer, telling him that no real chef would do so. He bristled at the criticism. "In doing that," he says, "Janette affirmed that 'we are all New Orleanians in that ineffable way that this town brings people together.' " Yet Simon acknowledges another, more technical falsity: Hubig's pies are locally made, and the Marigny-neighborhood factory hadn't opened yet. "I don't care," he says. "You discard the piece of truth that stands in the way of what is a true moment."
There are more inscrutable truths confronting Simon's team, none more so than those surrounding the world of Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate suits of feathers and beads in homage to both West African and Native American traditions: Here, Big Chiefs, Spyboys, Wildmen, and others have specific duties to enact, something between ritual and game, all of it rich with both formal strategy and spiritual signification. If too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that, once, Mardi Gras Indian battles did turn violent — what within American tradition doesn't share that aspect? — not enough has been done to understand the modern-day Indian intent to "kill 'em with pretty" as both a powerful nonviolent assertion of strength and the aesthetic credo underpinning stunning works of art. Nothing compares with the sight of a mass of colored feathers and sparkling beads, extending the whole of a man into a giant, walking soft sculpture that reveals little but two eyes aglow with purpose. "That glare in the eye, that look of supreme confidence" is how Clarke Peters describes the toughest aspect of his role as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. That and learning how to move, let alone dance and spin, while wearing 58 pounds of feathers and beads.