His heart beats for New Orleans
His heart beats for New Orleans
February 14, 2011
By Maridol Rañoa-Bismark

MANILA, Philippines - There’s something about hometowns that touches people like nothing else can.

It made Wendell Pierce go back in time six years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck his beloved New Orleans and took lives and hope away. It made him jump at the chance to return to New Orleans, where he shot the HBO series Treme (airing Monday nights at 11:30).

The lively Mardi Gras, the upbeat music – and later — the dejected faces and the dilapidated houses struck an oh-so-familiar chord. And Pierce can’t help but feel the joy and the pain rushing pell-mell toward him once more.

To be sure, scenes of the Mardi Gras, with all its pomp and pageantry, brought back happy memories.

“It’s part of our culture,” he said in a phone interview. And yet, it went beyond that.

The singing and dancing made him realize how much it kept his people’s spirit alive at a time when they needed it most.

Pierce calls it “the power of celebration.”

The actor looks at this ritual as some sort of coping mechanism.

“It gets us through the most difficult time of our lives,” he points out.

Pierce explains that nothing can be more difficult than “losing everything you’ve known all around you.”

He knows more than anyone else that it makes you lose a sense of purpose. Yes, he muses, losing your home makes you lose a little piece of the world. But losing everything robs you of your very reason for living.

Pierce arrived in New Orleans for a family holiday two days before Hurricane Katrina struck.

“We lost everything,” he reports. Their lives fell apart at the very moment the levees gave way. And Pierce, like the friends and family he grew up with in New Orleans felt his world crumbling as he was evacuating loved ones from his beloved hometown.

Thanks to Treme, Pierce found a way to exorcise the demons that haunted him after the tragedy.

David Simon, whom Pierce worked with in the drama The Wire, called him with an offer he can’t refuse. How would he like to play smooth-talking trombonist Antoine Batiste in his new TV drama, Treme?

Simon created the role with only Pierce in mind. So the actor grabbed it and gave it all he’s got. He learned to play the trombone with a member of a New Orleans band. And since he knew “my musician-friends are watching me very closely,” Pierce had to be as close to the real thing as possible.

He had to do justice to the music of New Orleans, where Pierce was born and raised. After all, music is at the very heart of the city, something its people — especially Pierce — consider as sacred as can be.

“It’s culture itself; part of our everyday life. It’s something we as a people don’t take for granted,” he explains.

Thus, Pierce didn’t mind flying back to his hometown to make a series on the place, the culture it’s so famous for, and its will to rise from devastation.

“It’s a great opportunity to give back to New Orleans,” says Pierce.

Then, too, nothing can be more inspiring than playing a role cut out for you. True, he felt pressure and a sense of a responsibility.

But all these pale in comparison with what the series and his role can do to help him and the people of New Orleans rebuild their lives.

“Doing this show is therapy for me,” he admits. “Reliving the scenes with a worldwide audience means we do not have to suffer alone.”

The burden becomes lighter; the road to recovery easier to take.

“What I’ve learned from all of this is that we human beings will survive anything,” he muses.

With Treme as source of strength, Pierce can move on and show others that they too, can start all over. For starters, he embarked on a project to redevelop parts of Pencetrane Park after the storm.

While he gets a kick out of helping others, Pierce’s joys as an actor is different.

“My proudest achievement,” he adds, “is seeing that something I’ve done changed the way people think and live.”

It’s too early to tell if Treme will have this kind of power. For now, it’s enough to say that Wendell Pierce is mighty proud of it. And because he is, we might as well find out why for ourselves.
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