2 August 2010

Real World New Orleans

This spring in New Orleans, while wisteria sweetened the air and most people I know excitedly procured down-market Jazz Fest tickets, Treme, a drama about the city after Hurricane Katrina, debuted on HBO and, until the oil spill brought everyone back to reality, temporarily charged the air a little more. Created by The Wire’s David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the show takes its name (sans accent aigu over the final letter) from a quaint African American neighborhood known for its role in New Orleans jazz lore, and follows characters from a spread of areas and backgrounds as they put their lives back together in the months after the storm. Treme features real locations, bases characters on well-known figures, and casts many locals, especially musicians, as themselves. Music, it almost goes without saying, emerges as the great equalizer among characters and the crux of their love for the city.

The Treme premiere opens with a depiction of the first post-Katrina “second line,” an ecstatic New Orleanian tradition in which pedestrians fold into a brass band-led procession as it accompanies a funeral or festival through the streets. The city’s dives, famous for brimming with gregarious locals at all hours, may never have been so silent as during those opening minutes. People have been gathering to watch the show at bars with high-end cable packages across the city, and judging by their sporadic cheering, one of the major draws of watching is to see friends and acquaintances cast in bit parts. One young woman told me that when an acquaintance named Austin appeared in one episode, “Twelve people in the bar yelled out, ‘Austin!’ Then everyone looked around, like, ‘You know Austin, too?’” But most people watch closely and quietly during the long hour unbroken by commercials, and hush completely when reliving the darkness and violence of the recovery. During a screening of the fifth episode, when the police chief described how overworked his department has been, I heard a woman say softly, almost to herself, “He’s telling a complicated truth.”

David Simon once said the neighborhood of Tremé is “sort of a state of mind.” This nebulousness informs the show’s slowly evolving storylines and compounds the sense that locals return to the show less as a piece of entertainment than to see its portrayals of local types, which can be both accurate and hurtful. John Goodman plays a Tulane professor, based on a real-life popular blogger, who loves New Orleans abstractly, for the culture it represents. Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native who also appeared on The Wire, plays a trombonist who lives hand-to-mouth, bumming rides and looking for gigs. He’s so enmeshed in the city’s low-paying jazz culture that he couldn’t live anywhere else. In a Law & Order-like plotline, the professor’s lawyer wife helps the trombonist’s ex-wife track down her brother, who’s been lost in the penal system since Katrina. The storm has shuffled every character’s deck, and their conversations center on practical subjects like sheet-rocking and mold removal, which the show’s non-professional actors handle with a mixture of stiffness and charm.

 Treme, as if a tourist’s dream, tends to cast a pall of pan-New Orleans identity and camaraderie centered around brass bands and Mardi Gras. But one character, Davis, allows the show’s creators to satirize this vision of the city.Played by Steve Zahn and based on local personality Davis Rogan, Davis lives in the Tremé and feels a deep attachment to the neighborhood, based on its history as the home of great African-American jazzmen. Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans music, he is embarrassingly out of touch with the fragile and confusing social dynamics of the city. It’s hard to watch him, especially when following Treme in the Marigny, a neighborhood filled with HBO-equipped bars and Davis-like characters. In one episode, he tries to barter a Dave Bartholomew box set for a $350 bottle of wine. (“Darling, you don’t understand. It’s out of print.”) In another, he defends his colloquial use of “nigger” in an all-black bar by explaining to someone he offends, “Oh, bro, bro, I live in this neighborhood.” For this, he gets a fist in the jaw, at which point the Marigny bar where I was watching erupted in applause.

Despite the ruthless categorizing of city types, bar-goers seem to like being on inside of the show’s endless references and New Orleans argot. The problem is that once a person or place is featured on the show, things are never the same. Vaughan’s, the Bywater bar where bandleader Kermit Ruffins plays with Elvis Costello in the audience in the first episode, used to have no cover during Ruffins’ Thursday night gig. Now the door is up to $15, a sum completely out of step with the local M. O. Friends visiting from out of town recently insisted we go to Bullet’s, an African American establishment where Ruffins headlines on Tuesdays, and that is pretty accurately depicted in Treme. (In the second episode, Davis sends a group of college kids from Wisconsin to Bullet’s “in search of the real New Orleans.”) The newly-established $5 cover wasn’t so bad when we went, but the Treme-ification was evident: a vendor sold Treme bootlegs outside and an accompanying friend, who hadn’t been to Bullet’s since the show debuted, expressed surprise at the number of white parties. A black man in a cowboy hat blasted country music from a pickup parked on neutral ground (the local name for a wide, grassy median strip). A petite, androgynous Vietnamese singer took over for Ruffins for a few songs. Authenticity may always be up for grabs in New Orleans, but it was hard not to feel the show had separated us from the Bullet’s we came for.

The real Davis has also changed. In 2003, Davis Rogan was booted from his unpaid WWOZ DJ timeslot for playing hip-hop on the air. (On Treme, Davis is fired for letting someone slaughter a chicken on air as part of a voodoo ritual.) Recently, in a nod to the series, Davis Rogan was back on radio as a guest DJ and the Times-Picayune announced he “is working on a new record he intends to title The Real.”

I often round a corner and see a city block taken over by humming trucks, production assistants, giant lights aimed in a building’s windows, and wires spreading across the street like kudzu. Sometimes when Treme is filming, untimely bits of Mardi Gras music trail through the air. One recent Saturday, after hearing some nearby trumpets, I rushed out to join what I hoped was a passing second line. As I approached the sound, I saw cop cars blocking off part of the block, and for a moment my heart dropped at the thought of stumbling into another film set. But then a man I know stepped out of the crowd, gave me a hug, and told me which of his friends had already passed. I followed the bittersweet procession drinking a special edition can of Bud Light colored in the Saints’ black and gold.

Image: From the set of Treme. February 2010.

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