Interview - David Simon And Clarke Peters, On 'Treme' The writer who explored Baltimore on the small screen turns his attention to a city that, even after Hurricane Katrina, is like no other. Simon and actor Clarke Peters, of both The Wire and Treme, speak about their new television series.
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David Simon And Clarke Peters On 'Treme'

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David Simon And Clarke Peters On 'Treme'

David Simon And Clarke Peters On 'Treme'

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The writer who explored Baltimore on HBO's "The Wire" has turned to another city. David Simon is co-creator of "Treme," which takes its name from a neighborhood in New Orleans. In the first episode, a DJ urges a New Orleans trumpet player to meet musicians from outside the city.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")

Mr. STEVE ZAHN (Actor): (As Davis McAlary): Youre just standing there and telling me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?

Mr. KERMIT RUFFINS (Actor, Trumpet Player): That'll work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: That'll work, says Kermit Ruffins, who's a distinguished musician in real life.

"Treme" explores a city that, even after Hurricane Katrina, is like no other. We spoke with one of the stars, Clark Peters and with writer David Simon.

Mr. DAVID SIMON (Writer, "Treme"): The city came back on the weight of culture. There was no political leadership that stood up, there was no socioeconomic reason that New Orleans had to return. I mean, this city came back over the last five years - one trombonist, one sous chef, one Mardi Gras Indian, one Social Aid and Pleasure Club member at a time.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Treme")

Mr. CLARKE PETERS (Actor): (As Albert Lambreaux) Im looking for George Cottrell.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) He ain't been back.

Mr. PETERS: (As Albert Lambreaux) Ugh.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Keeping an eye on his house though, so if he comes home.

Mr. PETERS: (As Albert Lambreaux) You heard from him?

Unidentified Man: (As character) No.

Mr. PETERS: (As Albert Lambreaux) Any idea where he at?

Unidentified Man: (As character) My cousin says Oklahoma City.

Mr. PETERS: (As Albert Lambreaux) Oklahoma City? Damn.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Yeah, right. He'll be back though, get tired of eating that food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PETERS: (As Albert Lambreaux) You hear from him, tell him his chief is looking for him.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Big Chief Lambreaux, huh? I heard George talk about you.

INSKEEP: Clarke Peters, let's talk about your character, Lambreaux, who returns to New Orleans as soon as he can after Hurricane Katrina. His home is utterly demolished and yet he asked to be dropped off there. He's not going to go back out of the city again. And he's a Mardi Gras Indian who dresses up for parades, quite a character.

Mr. PETERS: Yes. To say he just dresses up for parades is really minimizing a tradition that has gone on for hundreds of years. Mardi Gras Indians is probably more important to America and to the African-American community than they know. Because this is a part of New Orleans that isnt "Girls Gone Wild" on Bourbon Street, you know. It's a lot deeper than that.

INSKEEP: David Simon, now why did you include in this cast of characters, John Goodman, as a college professor screaming at outsiders, reporters - including, by the way, one from NPR - who dont, in his view, understand the city at all?

Mr. SIMON: He's not a unique voice to New Orleans. I think if you talked to New Orleaneans, they will say - 95 percent of New Orleaneans - will say that the country did not understand the phenomenon of Katrina and its aftermath.

You know, the Times Picayune has been saying for years, since the storm, this was not a natural disaster. The storm missed New Orleans. New Orleans probably had high Category 2 winds. What destroyed New Orleans was the greatest engineering failure in the history of the country.

INSKEEP: Is that complaint about outsiders not understanding something that goes even wider than Katrina, a feeling that people dont understand the culture of city?

Mr. SIMON: Well, I think so. Yeah, absolutely. New Orleans is its own creature, and for those that weighed in with sort of an indifference to its nuances, God help you. I mean we are - Ill be honest. When it comes to the show "Treme," Im not afraid of any audience outside of New Orleans. I dont care what anyone else thinks. And it's hard to explain it sometimes, to the outside world.

I mean, how do you explain the Mardi Gras Indians, which is basically a working-class African-American phenomenon of African-Americans masking as native Americans on Mardi Gras Day, and creating an entire subculture that is at the point of being its own religion at this point?

Or how do you explain the Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras Day, which is - which had its origins as a very sarcastic Black response to White Mardi Gras crews parading?

You know, you come to New Orleans and you're not ready for it and suddenly this float comes down the street, and it's full of African-Americans who are in Black Face.

Louis Armstrong was the King of Zulu in 1947. And when Eleanor Roosevelt saw him in "Life" magazine, she called him up and said, you know, Mr. Armstrong, What are you doing, you re setting back your race. And he had to say, ma'am, I dont what to tell you but Im the King of Zulu. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: ...I dont what your problem is but theyve made me the King of Zulu. You know, I couldnt be more proud. It's my hometown.

INSKEEP: I get a sense, watching an early episode of "Treme," that you're not even worried too much about explaining all the nuances of this. You're just trying to present it accurately, and Im going to dive in as a viewer and get it or not.

Mr. SIMON: Well, you know, there's two ways of being a tourist. The first way is you get on the tour bus and the guide grabs the microphone and you drive down the streets that everyone has driven down before. And he tells you, you know, when this church was built and then you go in for 15 minutes and you come out again. And you go to the next country.

And then there's the other, which is when you go somewhere for a while and you dont have a tour guide, and you walk into the nearest bar or shebeen and you just be. And you start figuring out a place from the people up.

And the way we try to do television is that way, which is to say exposition is pretty soul killing, and denies the fact that people have a right to live their lives without explaining it to you, the viewer, first. And it trusts that the viewers are intelligent.

INSKEEP: Well, Clarke Peters and David Simon, I want to ask you both: In the process of making this series, have either of you ended up feeling like one of those outsiders yourselves?

Mr. PETERS: Yeah. I've particularly as playing a Mardi Gras Indian chief. It's been very interesting, because not only do they challenge each other in their rituals, you know. For an outsider to try to represent them was a sharp learning arc. I've been told on many, many times, you know, people look at me and they say, Oh, you're a Mardi Gras. You're the chief? Oh, no. No. No, you can't possibly do this. You have no idea of how they dress, how they dance, how they talk, their secret language, so forth and so on.

So more than anything else, as David says, we've got to get it right for them. You know, they are the ones that - I mean seriously, that I am afraid of. I have to be...

Mr. SIMON: It's really intense.

Mr. PETERS: ...a puppet on the string of their culture.

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, it's a - I mean, you know, even going back and working with actual Indians on stuff, they're incredibly furtive about stuff. There's things where they say to Clarke or they say to the writers, Oh, we can't tell you that. Well, wait. You're our consultant. We're, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: You're supposed to be helping us. Oh, no. I can't tell you that. Thats, you know, if I tell you that then, you know, you're not allowed to know that.

You know, Clarke is searching after something. It's really he's climbing the biggest mountain of any of the actors and it's wonderful to watch, actually. Cause I think he's getting there.

INSKEEP: Well, David Simon, thanks very much.

Mr. SIMON: Sure.

INSKEEP: Clarke Peters, thanks to you.

Mr. PETERS: And thank you for having us.

INSKEEP: The HBO series "Treme" premiers on Sunday.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.


And Im Renee Montagne.

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