'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 walls of the script room in the Treme production office are littered with facts, Post-it notes sketching out a telling chronology: October 2005—Mayor Ray Nagin lays off 3,000 nonessential city employees. December 2005—Ninth Ward, “Look and Leave.” January 2006—Nagin’s “Chocolate City” speech. Fiction though it is, the stories told here are tethered to the way things really went down. And there’s more to get right than documented incidents.

“We check ourselves a million times a day,” Overmyer tells me. “On even the smallest thing.” How could they not, in a city where street medians are known as “neutral grounds” and “I ain’t kiddin’, no” counts as proper usage? Leyh insisted upon recording the music straight from each scene, as opposed to studio dubbing— a relatively unheard-of strategy for television production, but one essential to capturing “music that sounds less true when removed from its moment.” Pierce’s trombone parts at each shoot are usually provided by Rebirth Brass Band regular Stafford Agee; Rob Brown, who plays the trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (son of Clark Peters’s character, Albert), pulls out his Mac PowerBook to show me the videotapes from which he must memorize the fingerings to Donald Harrison’s bebop-based tunes. “It is not a game,” he says.

Yet Simon swears no fealty to the facts. “I know what I’m making here,” he says. “I’m not making a documentary. And this is not journalism.” The dramatic pursuit trumps all, he explains, “or I’m doomed.” He knows that the space his series occupies, bound by real events and yet invented on the page, serves the surreality of post-Katrina New Orleans perhaps better than any straight account.

He recalls a scene, set in November 2005, in which Dickens character Janette is running out of desserts at her restaurant. After a regular customer turns down her last remaining choice, she pulls from her purse a Hubig’s pie, a packaged local favorite found at corner groceries. Simon recalls a friend, a food writer, telling him that no real chef would do so. He bristled at the criticism. “In doing that,” he says, “Janette affirmed that ‘we are all New Orleanians in that ineffable way that this town brings people together.’ ” Yet Simon acknowledges another, more technical falsity: Hubig’s pies are locally made, and the Marigny-neighborhood factory hadn’t opened yet. “I don’t care,” he says. “You discard the piece of truth that stands in the way of what is a true moment.”

There are more inscrutable truths confronting Simon’s team, none more so than those surrounding the world of Mardi Gras Indians, who dress in elaborate suits of feathers and beads in homage to both West African and Native American traditions: Here, Big Chiefs, Spyboys, Wildmen, and others have specific duties to enact, something between ritual and game, all of it rich with both formal strategy and spiritual signification. If too much emphasis has been placed on the fact that, once, Mardi Gras Indian battles did turn violent—what within American tradition doesn’t share that aspect?—not enough has been done to understand the modern-day Indian intent to “kill ’em with pretty” as both a powerful nonviolent assertion of strength and the aesthetic credo underpinning stunning works of art. Nothing compares with the sight of a mass of colored feathers and sparkling beads, extending the whole of a man into a giant, walking soft sculpture that reveals little but two eyes aglow with purpose. “That glare in the eye, that look of supreme confidence” is how Clarke Peters describes the toughest aspect of his role as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux. That and learning how to move, let alone dance and spin, while wearing 58 pounds of feathers and beads.

In one pivotal scene, when Big Chief Lambreaux must implore a fellow Indian to rekindle tradition in the ruins of the flood, he looks the part—bright red and canary yellow feathers, glittering beaded patches. Simon and Overmyer were pleased when they viewed a playback. But after they showed it to real-life Indians, they got instant criticisms. Lambreaux’s friend needs to come down from his porch into the street, they all said; the Big Chief looks up as if in supplication, undermining his character. “We needed to reshoot,” recalls Simon. “We went back and chased it.”

A later scene tackles yet more delicate material. After a Wildman is found drowned in his garage, a memorial is held. It’s a brief yet hard-hitting scene, a ring of Mardi Gras Indians wearing plainclothes and intense expressions, slapping tambourines and singing a traditional song, “Indian Red.” As the camera pans, those in the know will recognize faces: Cherice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., sister of Donald, and Big Queen of her own tribe; Darryl Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas and son of Alison “Tootie” Montana, well-known as “Chief of Chiefs”; and Fred Johnson, a founder of the Black Men of Labor, who gave up “masking Indian” decades ago, after 17 years alongside Tootie.

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