MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Acclaimed TV writers David Simon and Eric Overmyer are launching a new series on HBO Sunday called "Treme." It's set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina. The story is told through the eyes of the musicians, chefs and Mardi Gras Indians you'll only find in New Orleans, and locals are heavily involved in the production.
NPR's Debbie Elliott introduces us to a few of them.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Venture just out of the tourist-packed French Quarter, into the Faubourg Treme neighborhood with its shotgun-style houses, and you'll find a character on just about every corner and maybe a church or a barroom. It's that New Orleans that the TV show "Treme" is trying to capture.
Mr. KERMIT RUFFINS (Trumpet Player): We on our way to the heart of Treme. Oh, that's a new song. (Singing) We're on our way to the heart of Treme.
ELLIOTT: Trumpet player Kermit Ruffins is showing me around in his big black pickup truck. Ruffins owns Sidney's Saloon in the Treme and invites folks to come by this afternoon for a big boil.
Mr. RUFFINS: (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #1: You know...
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I'm coming there.
Unidentified Man #1: You know where I be at.
Unidentified Man #2: I'm coming down there.
Mr. RUFFINS: Okay. We got the crabs and the potatoes and corn and sweet potatoes, asparagus...
Unidentified Man #1: I heard that.
Mr. RUFFINS: ...along with some good old acorns.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes, indeed.
ELLIOTT: Ruffins and his mobile barbecue grill appear in Sunday's pilot episode. He's a co-founder of the Rebirth Brass Band and plays himself, as do other local musicians.
This is one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the U.S., populated in part by refugees of the Haitian revolution.
Mr. RUFFINS: This is the road takes us straight to Congo Square.
ELLIOTT: That's the plaza where slaves once gathered on Sundays to eat, play drums and dance.
Mr. RUFFINS: Congo Square is the heartbeat of America as far as I'm concerned. Because this is where our only true art form was invented jazz. I mean, it took those European instruments and mixed it with the African culture and there it was, jazz. Its crazy.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Ruffins says he feels rooted when he plays his trumpet here. He hopes the HBO series will spark a jazz revival.
Lolis Eric Elie is one of the local writers working on "Treme." He says it's significant that the show features a neighborhood long neglected by the city's elite.
Mr. LOLIS ERIC ELIE (Writer, "Treme"): They don't invest in it, they don't take it seriously, they don't respect it. To have people like David Simon and Eric Overmyer come here and go to the heart of a community that is emblematically black and is also, in local terms, often considered an area of high crime and high blight is a hell of a statement about what is really important about New Orleans.
ELLIOTT: Some New Orleanians are concerned about how the city will come off in "Treme," in part because there have been so many bad portrayals of New Orleans. Others have grown weary of the TV crews and traffic disruptions. But mostly, locals are thronging to be a part of the production.
Mr. RUFFINS: Hollywood South, how you doing?
Ms. KAREN-KAIA LIVERS: Hollywood South, that's right. Right here.
ELLIOTT: Karen-Kaia Livers is signing up extras at Bullet's, a bar where Kermit Ruffins plays on Tuesday nights.
Ms. LIVERS: Why not work in the workplace that you hang out every Tuesday?
ELLIOTT: Barbara Trevigne(ph) signs up. She's excited about the show.
Ms. BARBARA TREVIGNE: It's a good thing for New Orleans for Louisiana. It's employing people. It's talking about the culture here, we're all - the food, everything. It's bringing New Orleans to the world.
ELLIOTT: Some locals have recurring parts, including Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, who gained notoriety for her profane observations in Spike Lee's documentary "When the Levees Broke." In "Treme," she plays Desiree, the girlfriend of New Orleans native Wendell Pierce's character, trombone player Antoine Batiste.
Ms. PHYLLIS MONTANA LEBLANC: It's easy. The lines that I'm reading, the episodes that I'm doing is, like, stuff that I might say to my husband every other day or so. My boyfriend is a musician, so I'm giving him hell. So I'm Phyllis. I'm Desiree, but I'm Phyllis.
(Soundbite Of TV show, "Treme")
Ms. MONTANA LEBLANC: (as Desiree) We've got bills to pay.
Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (as Antoine Batiste) I'm trying, baby. What can I say, Desiree? I got a job.
Ms. LEBLANC: Difference between a gig and a job, Antoine. You got to get a job.
Mr. PIERCE: I got a job. I'm with Kermit.
Ms. LEBLANC: That's a gig - once a week and it don't pay enough.
ELLIOTT: Another character is loosely based on New Orleans chef Susan Spicer of Bayona.
Ms. SUSAN SPICER: She is younger, prettier and a little saltier than me.
ELLIOTT: Janette Desautel is trying to reopen her restaurant after the storm. Both food and staff are hard to come by.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")
Ms. KIM DICKENS (Actor): (as Janette Desautel) Where is everyone?
Unidentified Man #3: The crew's running late.
Ms. DICKENS: Wardell?
Unidentified Man #3: Irene's - 10 an hour.
Ms. DICKENS: Dishwashing? Damn, thank God (unintelligible).
Ms. SPICER: One of the first things that I did when I went on the set the first time was the sous chef was chopping vegetables and he was going chop, chop, chop, you know, really loud and, like, banging the knife. And I was like, oh no, you would not, you know, last 30 seconds in my kitchen with that racket.
ELLIOTT: Spicer believes "Treme" highlights an underappreciated side of New Orleans.
Ms. SPICER: Street musicians and the, you know, just the people that make up this very, very interesting cultural mix, you know? And it's so much a part of what we were afraid of losing after Katrina.
ELLIOTT: Kermit Ruffins thinks that spotlight will be revealing.
Mr. RUFFINS: The storm brought a lot of bad and a lot of good. It took the mask off everything. Everybody could see what the city was for and who was running it and the corruption and the good. The reefer-smoking musicians are so good. The politicians are so bad. They were telling us we were bad.
ELLIOTT: Ruffins hopes "Treme" will show the rest of the country what the truth really is.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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