Book Review: The Wind in the Reeds

Treme actor Wendell Pierce finds Godot and gratitude in post-Katrina New Orleans

Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste in HBO's Treme

Katrina isn't something one imagines being thankful for. And yet in The Wind in the Reeds, Wendell Pierce's book about that storm and the havoc it wreaked on his hometown of New Orleans, about the pain it visited on his family, neighbors, and so many others in the Crescent City, the actor expresses thanks on almost every page. Not thanks for Katrina, naturally, or any of the suffering and devastation left in its wake, but for things the storm revealed to him: about New Orleans' history and his own; about the character of the city's people, especially those in his family; about the legacy he inherited from his parents and his parents' parents and their parents, and all that it means to him; and about art's power to transform people even in the midst of despair. Katrina's flood waters washed over Pierce and exposed anew his deep roots in the city, which inspired him not only to return there but to write about it. In what he calls "the story of my homecoming," Pierce gives a profoundly personal account of life in New Orleans after the deluge but also, tellingly, before it. He wants us to grasp what happened there and what he did by seeing where he came from and how it came to be.

To do that, Pierce goes trawling in some mighty deep waters – personally, politically, historically, and philosophically. He dives a century and a half into his family's past to lay out their story, starting with his great-grandfather as a slave on a sugarcane plantation in Assumption Parish and swimming forward through time, generation by generation, to show the progress each made and the fortitude of his forebears that made it possible. He doesn't simply share tales of his boyhood in Pontchartrain Park, he shares the background of the subdivision itself, with a rigorously detailed history of real estate developments in New Orleans and the role race played in them to supply context. And whether he's discussing life lessons gleaned from his beloved parents, his education and career as an actor, or the trials and traumas faced by New Orleanians rebuilding their city after Katrina, Pierce draws on wisdom from Western culture heavy hitters; Dostoyevsky, Dante, de Tocqueville, Balzac, Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot all make appearances, not to mention Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot provides both an illuminating example of art's power and a catalyst for Pierce's return.

Godot doesn't have a rep for being upbeat. Its bleak sentiments – expressed in such lines as "Nothing to be done" and "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it's night once more" – might seem cold comfort to a populace beaten into despair by Katrina's ravages. But when Pierce performs Godot on the ruined streets of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhood two years after the storm, he discovers that his fellow citizens feel a kinship with the play's tramps, with the abandonment they face and the dawning sense that no savior is ever coming to their aid. This is the world New Orleanians inhabit now, and seeing its reflection onstage is, in a sense, heartening: Someone is speaking for them, articulating their griefs and desperation. And also telling them they mustn't lose sight of their opportunity to act. The words that ring most potently in Pierce's own ears are those he speaks as Didi: "Let us do something, while we have the chance! ... At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!" To him, it's "a prophet's incantation and a call to arms," and it rouses him to "keep faith" with all the New Orleanians who preceded him and on whose shoulders he stands, to honor them and the people of the Crescent City, living and dead, by returning there and joining the efforts to rebuild. Yes, it's insanely hard and trying, with obstacles at every turn – which Pierce catalogs with an open disdain for the politicians and bureaucrats who erect them – but he finds another mantra among his lines from Godot: "What's the good of losing heart now?"

Pierce doesn't lose heart. Rather, he takes it from people around him, especially once David Simon, creator of The Wire, chooses to follow that Baltimore-based HBO series with one set in New Orleans and gives Pierce – his priceless Bunk Moreland on The Wire – the plum role of trombonist Antoine Batiste. Pierce details the care that Simon and the Treme production team took to get the story right – consulting longtime residents who had their fingers on the city's pulse; documenting all the sorrow, absurdity, rage, and resilience of life post-Katrina; working to represent New Orleans culture authentically – and how the city responded, watching each episode as a communal ritual, a form of group therapy that helped New Orleans "rediscover its song."

One can imagine this book being penned from a different, more commercial angle: Treme in tight close-up, spinning behind-the-camera anecdotes about the creators and cast, with New Orleans as background color. But it takes only a few pages to comprehend that this was the book Pierce had to write. The story of his homecoming is the story of everyone who had a hand in creating the home he was coming back to – his parents, grandparents, other relatives, teachers, fellow actors, David Simon – and in coming home he realized how much of a hand they had in making him who he is, and that he needed to thank them. That sense of debt and gratitude should resonate in anyone, especially at the time of year when we reflect on the blessings in our lives. That Wendell Pierce wrote The Wind in the Reeds just as it is, is something to be thankful for.

The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken

by Wendell Pierce with Rod Dreher
Riverhead Books, 352 pp., $27.95

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