During his time on "The Wire," Wendell Pierce often regaled the Baltimore cast and crew with stories of his hometown of New Orleans -- the food, the music, the culture. If only they could see it for themselves.
That was before Hurricane Katrina. The city he showed his new castmates during the production of "Treme," more than four years after the devastation, still had areas that didn't require much work for the crew to make it look as if only three months had passed.
No one knows the struggles the city has faced better than Pierce, who not only grew up in New Orleans, but has been one of the more visible champions of the rebuilding. He appeared in Spike Lee's 2006 documentary "When the Levees Broke" and has fronted an organization dedicated to helping re-establish the city's Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.
So when his old "Wire" cohorts, David Simon and Eric Overmyer, said they were creating a show for HBO about post-Katrina New Orleans, and that they had written the main role with him in mind, Pierce seized the opportunity. The hourlong drama series debuts Sunday, April 11.
"I was flattered and humbled that they would think of me," Pierce says. "It becomes more than a job; it becomes a great responsibility. It becomes this great cathartic moment, especially in this time for New Orleans when we're trying to recover, to have this opportunity to bring the character and this show to life while I'm also struggling with developments and trying to bring my own neighborhood back to life. In our darkest hour, I feel it's like a bright, shining light."
Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a trombone player barely getting by on whatever gig comes his way. Often that entails playing a jazz funeral. He has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), a tavern owner.
The other characters in the city's Treme neighborhood include a displaced Mardi Gras Indian chief (Clarke Peters), his musician son (Rob Brown), a struggling restaurant owner (Kim Dickens), a wisecracking radio DJ (Steve Zahn), an outspoken college professor (John Goodman) and his civil rights attorney wife (Melissa Leo), and two young street musicians (Michiel Huisman, Lucia Micarelli). Their stories intersect on occasion and, as with "The Wire," the time invested in character development makes their encounters all the richer for the viewer.
"We're trying to get at what the culture's like, what the music's like, how people really talk," Overmyer says. "We're just spending a little more time here. We're trying to let a lot of the local people speak for themselves instead of it all being done by outsiders. We're just asking questions, saying 'How would you do it?' You get these faces you've never seen anywhere else, and you get these accents you've never heard anywhere else."