'The Wire' Creators Tap Into New Orleans

David Simon's new HBO series, 'Treme,' uses fiction to honor that city's surreal, heartbreaking fact

The cast of Treme and the characters they play draw on all walks of New Orleans life. Pierce, who portrayed surly detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire, was born and raised in the city’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood; his character’s last name, Batiste, references one of the city’s storied musical lineages. Clarke Peters (stoic detective Lester Freamon on The Wire) plays the Mardi Gras Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux, who is also a jazz bassist: His scenes were vetted by Donald Harrison Jr., a New Orleans native who straddles both worlds in real life. Davis Rogan, a local musician and former WWOZ-FM DJ, provided a real-life template for the musical passion and sketchy employment history of Davis McAlary, the character played by Steve Zahn. Kim Dickens plays Janette Desautel, a chef fighting to keep her restaurant open. John Goodman plays Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University professor whose angry declamations (“The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe”) were drawn in part from those of blogger Ashley Morris; Melissa Leo plays his wife, Toni, a civil rights attorney who often finds herself defending musicians. The numerous musicians playing themselves, often in performance, range from such recognizable stars as Elvis Costello and Dr. John to local heroes like Ruffins and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.

Simon’s writing team includes familiar collaborators: Eric Overmyer, a Treme executive producer and co-creator, first worked with him on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street; David Mills, a Treme producer, adapted Simon’s book The Corner for HBO; the novelist George Pelecanos was cajoled into joining The Wire staff early in its run. Simon also added two new faces: Tom Piazza, a New Orleans transplant and longtime resident whose nine books to date include two post-Katrina offerings, the nonfiction treatise Why New Orleans Matters and the novel City of Refuge; and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for The Times-Picayune, who, along with director Dawn Logsdon, created the documentary Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. “It’s a great room,” says Overmyer, a TV veteran; Piazza, who’s more accustomed to writing in solitude, found himself seduced by a sense of “collective improvisation”—not unlike, he admits, that of a brass band.

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Wendell Pierce, delivering another wordless monologue
Courtesy HBO
Wendell Pierce, delivering another wordless monologue

It’s late November, and a bright sun warms an otherwise chilly morning, but only if you’re out of the shade in the narrow streets of the French Quarter. On the corner of Royal and St. Peter streets, in front of Rouses Market, sit a portable keyboard and speaker. Two middle-aged black men gesture excitedly as they talk; across the street, Overmyer and director Jim McKay follow along on a portable screen as other production assistants flit purposefully about. It’s tough to tell the actors from the extras from the staff.

The cameras focus on a petite, doe- eyed violinist (Annie, played by Lucia Micarelli) and a gangly young man (Sonny, played by Michiel Huisman) at the keyboard. He plays a fairly rudimentary arrangement of “Careless Love” as she adds sweet-toned harmonies and knowing obligato.

A blonde in a pink cable-knit sweater and brown skirt, purse slung over her shoulder, stands before the musicians with two friends, another woman and a man, all three bearing the look of polite excitement common among tourists who happen upon street performers in New Orleans. The trio claps, drops some cash, attempts small talk: They’re from Madison, Wisconsin. First time in New Orleans. Came down with a church group to gut houses.

“We saw everything in the news, what was going on in the Ninth Ward,” the blonde says.

“Yeah,” mutters Sonny. “Yeah, everybody talking about the Lower Nine . . Let me ask you something: You ever even heard of the Ninth Ward before the storm? So why’re you so fired up about it now?”

An awkward pause. Annie jumps in: “A-a-anybody have any requests?”

“What about . . . I don’t know . . . some-thing authentic?”

“Real New Or-leeeens music?” mocks Sonny. “How about, ‘When the Saints,’ you know, ‘Go Marching In’?”

Annie: “Thing is, traditionally, ‘Saints’ is extra.”

“How come?”

Sonny: “Because every cheesehead from Chowderland wants to hear ‘Saints.’ ”

“He’s kidding,” Annie quickly adds. “We love to play ‘Saints.’ ”

Cut. McKay has a brief discussion with the actors, focusing on Annie’s awkward pause—its gravity and duration. The context it reveals. There is, in fact, a sign on the wall in the dusty auditorium of Preservation Hall, just down St. Peter Street: “Traditional requests, $2. Others, $5. ‘Saints,’ $10.” A curious if somewhat unspoken tension surrounds New Orleans culture; it concerns the faces that culture wears, the ways in which it’s bought and sold, the role it plays, and the meaning it holds depending on what neighborhood you’re in and to whom you speak.

Simon’s new series draws its name from Tremé, which is considered by some to be the oldest black neighborhood in America and has long been a hothouse for New Orleans jazz. When I arrive at Lolis Eric Elie’s house there, workmen are attending to floorboards in need of replacement due to termite damage. A New Orleans native, Elie bought this home some 12 years ago. He pulls out a hardbound copy of New Orleans Architecture, Volume VI: Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road, which explains that the house sits on property originally deeded to College d’Orleans, sold for $250 in 1827. He points to a piece in that day’s Metro section of The Times-Picayune, regarding the partial collapse of a building on South Rampart Street, in the historic Back o’ Town section, where early jazz history was scripted by the likes of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong.

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