Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Les Bon Temps: The Post-Katrina Angst of "Treme"

Most northerners are familiar with the French Quarter and the Garden District, historically popular New Orleans tourism destinations. But we probably have had limited knowledge about Faubourg Treme, a section of the Big Easy with a heroic legacy. Under 18th-century French and Spanish colonial rule, slaves had Sundays off, allowing them to gather in Congo Square to sing and dance. Many wore makeshift costumes with an indigenous flair -- the origins of contemporary Mardi Gras, in which elaborately dressed “tribes” parade through the Crescent City.

Music at those slave celebrations provided the roots of modern-day jazz. After the United States acquired vast territory in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, however, authorities crushed the Sunday tradition. The place was later renamed Beauregard Square in honor of a confederate general. (It’s now Congo Square again, a jewel in the crown of Louis Armstrong Park.) The racially mixed Treme (pronounced Tra-may) evolved into a haven for “free people of color” and played a significant role in the earliest annals of the civil rights struggle. Paul Trevigne was a crusading journalist who edited a French-language publication, L’Union. Launched in September 1862, it called for the abolition of slavery five months before the Emancipation Proclamation. He went on to work for America’s first black-owned daily newspaper, the bilingual Tribune, during the 10-year period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Trevigne was instrumental in advocating for voter registration, desegregation of the streetcars and full citizenship for all -- an agenda even more progressive than that of the era’s abolitionists. These efforts met with temporary success. The period of relative enlightenment ended when Federal troops left the area in 1877. Residents then experienced an ugly reversal of fortune at the hands of white-supremacist politicians and the Ku Klux Klan. Even though unique cultural riches continued to flourish in Treme, a 1960s urban renewal project ushered in drugs, crime and the physical degradation of a once-lovely sector. Then came Katrina in 2005.

A new HBO series, shot in New Orleans, steps into this scenario three months after the hurricane. Treme was created by executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore journalist. He’s populated it with some of the same actors -- Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters -- that graced The Wire or The Corner, his previous shows on the cable channel. Melissa Leo starred in Homicide: Life on the Street, based on a book by Simon, also a staff writer for the NBC drama. There are fun musical cameos by genuine New Orleans natives Kermit Ruffins, Mac Rebbenack (a.k.a. Dr. John) and Allen Toussaint, plus Elvis Costello of the United Kingdom. The soundtrack features songs by the likes of Louis Prima, Fats Domino and Lucinda Williams.

Guest directors such as Agnieszka Holland and Ernest Dickerson (who got his start as Spike Lee’s cinematographer) each bring a respectful sensibility to the proceedings, in which various sagas unfold little by little. Treme looks at diaspora survival mechanisms among those who struggle and those who hustle. The storytelling is layered, with a large ensemble cast portraying individuals whose shattered lives intersect in believable ways:

* LaDonna Batiste-Williams (Alexander) operates a flood-damaged Treme bar, even though her upscale dentist husband and two sons have relocated to Baton Rouge. She suffers no fools and has the most powerful withering glance ever seen on either side of the Mississippi River. Her elderly mother refuses to leave New Orleans because she’s waiting for the return of LaDonna’s brother, Daymo, a prisoner who disappeared during the storm.

* Trombone player Antoine Batiste (Pierce) is LaDonna’s’s former husband, and absentee father of her afore-mentioned boys. He now lives with another woman, who bore him another baby, but routinely has sex with strippers from seedy Bourbon Street clubs, the only nightspots still hiring him. One of these ladies has scored a much-in-demand FEMA trailer by virtue of her lack of virtue.

* Toni Bernette (Leo) is a civil rights lawyer representing several indigent clients, including some arrested -- even beaten -- in a largely arbitrary fashion by police or the national guard. She’s married to Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane University professor who regularly rails against the government agencies that allowed the levees to fail. They have a teenage daughter (India Ennenga) unhappily enrolled at a Baton Rouge boarding school because education in “NoLa” has been disrupted.

* Perpetual stoner Davis McAlary (Zahn) has been fired from his radio job for allowing real-life blues vocalist and voodoo practitioner Coco Robicheaux to slaughter a chicken on air. At home, the ex-DJ blasts recorded music through open windows to alienate strangers who have moved into his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. (Davis mentions he majored in English at Goddard College. What may have been a throwaway line for the writers was for me, a graduate of that Vermont school, a resonant detail about an infuriating character. I knew students like that!)

* Janette Desautel (Dickens), periodically wooed by Davis, is desperate to save her failing gourmet restaurant but can’t find enough workers or customers.

* Everybody in Treme has hidden depths, of course, but two white buskers are particularly mysterious newcomers. A recovering neo-hippie cokehead, Sonny (charismatic Dutch actor Michiel Huisman), a keyboardist, spins suspect yarns about his brave efforts to rescue stranded victims during the hurricane. He’s also horribly possessive of his naive girlfriend, Annie (Lucia Micarelli), whose face is mesmerizingly expressive as she accompanies him on violin. Everyone else seems to belong in Treme, but the show has yet to reveal where this couple comes from and why they’ve landed in a city barely coping with such devastation. Wouldn’t most itinerants migrate toward prosperity?

* A Treme lad striving for a career beyond his home turf, Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is a young jazz cat with gigs in New York and Paris. This ambition disappoints his no-nonsense, “Nawlins”-centric father, Albert Lambreaux (Peters) -- a Mardi Gras chief hoping to resurrect the event despite chaotic conditions. His feathered headdress has somehow made it through the catastrophe unscathed but the members of his tribe are scattered or dead. Most of his family has relocated to Houston.

The scripts given to these performers are exquisitely nuanced, as evident in some scenes from the third episode: In a brief discussion about how lighter-skinned Creoles are given an advantage in Louisiana, LaDonna describes the discrimination and neglect plaguing darker African-Americans: ”We’re just folks from around the way.” Albert and other locals stand in a circle on a Lower Ninth Ward side street to mark the demise of a friend with an impromptu rhythm session, using tambourines and small drums. They begin a ritual chant that becomes almost trance-like. Suddenly, the spell is broken by the arrival of an air-conditioned tour bus filled with out-of-towners gawking at Katrina’s ruins.

Perhaps Treme viewers have been invited to gawk, as well, but this compelling television program inspires a profound sense of kinship with folks from around the way.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


  1. Interesting that your review of the series "Treme" touches on the history of the Treme neighborhood and Paul Trevigne, in particular. There's an amazing documentary, "Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans" (, that relates the story of Paul Trevigne. Directed by Dawn Logsdon and written by Lolis Eric Elie (now a staff writer on the Treme series), this film is a beautiful declaration of love to one of the country's most wondrous cities and cultures. This documentary -- which among other things reminds viewers of the crucial role played by black New Orleanians in our country's history -- is an excellent primer for Simon's series.

  2. Dawn Logsdon's "Faubourg Treme" is a wonderful, must-see documentary that provided some of the historical facts I drew from while writing my review of the HBO series. Perhaps the cable channel will screen it as a way of underscoring the reality behind the fiction. -- Susan Green