When the actor Wendell Pierce returned to his native New Orleans in the summer of 2005, he saw a city that was 80 percent underwater.
“Nearly fifteen hundred people were dead. Half the houses in the city had four feet of water in them, or more. There was no electricity or clean water in the city; looting and the breakdown of civil order would soon follow.”
You can remember these bare outlines and still be startled by the immediate and direct way that Pierce, best known for his roles in “The Wire” and the post-flood saga “Treme,” recounts them in his new book. “The Wind in the Reeds” tells of his deep roots in the city, the catastrophe of Katrina, and his experience acting in David Simon’s celebrated series. The center of the book is his intertwined effort to put on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in post-Katrina New Orleans and to help bring back his old neighborhood.
We spoke to Pierce about art, tragedy, his city and its past and future. The interview has been slightly condensed for clarity.
The first part of “The Wind in the Reeds” gives a detailed picture of your family history, the establishment of the black middle-class neighborhood Pontchartrain Park, and your own early years. Your childhood exposure to music, the arts and culture in general made a powerful, and it seems, permanent impression on your life. How did it end up hitting you so hard?
One of things about growing up in New Orleans is that we live our culture. It is part of our life. It is something that you wake up in the morning with; when it comes to our cuisine, you hear music constantly, in every part of your life there is music included. So I always knew culture to be part of my life, and something of great importance.
And early on I was introduced to how not only is culture entertaining — that’s a by-product of what it truly is in your life — it’s a framework for action. The Free Southern Theater Group was a group that came together during the Civil Rights era. The social aid and pleasure clubs, which are really benevolent societies, [formed] as a social network to combat Jim Crow laws and redlining that didn’t allow people to have access to healthcare and burial plots and life insurance. Going all the way back to the history of Congo Square, where captured Africans could only express their freedom in their art — in dancing and playing the bamboula and combining it with the instruments of Europe and creating the quintessential American art form of jazz.
So that was always a part of my life, and being from New Orleans, it was on the surface of my life all the time.
In this country, we generally think of culture — music or anything else — as entertainment that leads to money. You have a much more idealistic take on it all.
Once we start to understand the role of art — technical proficiency meeting expressive thoughts and improvisation and both co-existing on a high level — then we’ll find the best within our own humanity. That’s what culture is: human beings interacting with life.
We assume, because of the discipline I’m in, acting, that entertainment is the only role of art, but that’s not true. People can take whatever form of whatever art and say, "Let’s make some money off it" – that’s part of capitalism; it looks at all disciplines for opportunities to make money. But that does not define what it is. It does not define the craft. That’s where we’ve lost an idea of art and culture in our society.
The center of the book is the performance of the Beckett play, “Waiting for Godot.” We usually think of Beckett’s work as being about this timeless existential condition. But you talk about the play as having specific historical roots. Tell us a little about the conditions against which Beckett wrote “Godot,” and what made you want to transplant it to what, on the surface, is a very different place.
Beckett, in isolation [in Paris] and asylum during the Second World War, as the Nazis occupied France, he wrote the play out of his sense of despair, sense of void, sense of it being never-ending, What can you rely on? What is there outside the self to save you? So he created these two characters, in a void — a road, a tree — and nothing else around them. And they don’t know their past, and have very little hope for their future. They’re looking for something outside themselves — Godot — this entity, to come and define it for them. And they wait for Godot, but as we know he never comes.
In the course of the play they ask, “Who is Godot? What can he do for us? Where does his power lie?” Over the course of the play, Beckett is holding a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare says, [they realize] that ultimately you have to find the truth within yourself. That’s the conclusion they come to. Or you will be in the same rut…
It’s that moment of realization — that the power comes from within. That’s the most cathartic moment in my career — when I did it in the Lower Ninth Ward. Paul Chan, who did it in New York, used 15,000 gallons of water, and it was immediately a comment on Katrina.
He wanted to do it in New Orleans when he saw that neighborhood — he said it reminded him over every production of Godot he’d ever seen. To transplant it there made it very immediate. There’s a moment in the play where Vladimir says, “At this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance.” At that moment, I almost … I wasn’t even in character. I had just stepped in front of fellow New Orleanians — after so many hundreds of people had lost their lives, in the midst of this great storm, in the midst of this flood, in the midst of our spiritual recovery. We made a declaration of saying, "Let’s all of us do something. We’ve gone through this painful thing, we’re struggling to survive; let’s commit to bringing our lives back, bringing our communities back, bringing our city back."
That helped define for me the role of art — reminded me of the restorative nature of art. It’s the form through which we reflect who we are. Where you’ve been, where you hope to be, where you’ve failed … Art is how we do that as a society. It’s where we declare our values and then act on them. It’s not an incidental thing. It’s a beautiful force. It can move you to tears, and move you to action.
It moved me to rebuild my neighborhood. It also made me realize that that needed resilience, needed fortitude — and made me aware of the legacy of resilience in my family, my community: Art led me to that epiphany.
It’s a decade past the flood. In some ways New Orleans has bounced back, but some things have not been restored. How does it seem to you?
It’s a tale of two cities. We have this great recovery, but there are some still left behind. It’s moving into the future, but holding onto some of the ugly vestiges of the past. It’s created a schism between the haves and have-nots.
The city has returned because of that resilience and fortitude that everyone shares. As I say in the book, the one lesson I learned growing up in New Orleans is that there are those who do not have your best interests at heart. There’s a legacy of classism and racism that we still see today. As we move forward, there are those holding onto vestiges of our ugly past. And as always, from generation to generation, that ugliness just changes — it shape-shifts. There will always be those we have to combat so we can move forward.
Watch this colorful video on street performers in the French Quarter:
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