ARUN RATH, HOST:
Ten years ago, actor Wendell Pierce went home for a vacation between recording seasons of the hit HBO show "The Wire." As he stepped off the plane in New Orleans, the airport was a mess because a massive hurricane called Katrina was closing in on the city.
WENDELL PIERCE: I was telling my parents, oh, let's just ride it out. Let's just stay. I went out that Saturday night, and I kind of bluffed my parents and said, well, if they make it a mandatory evacuation, we'll leave. That Sunday morning, they did, and that's when I knew it was serious. We evacuated that Sunday and rode out the storm about 70 miles west of the city with my uncle in St. James, La. We lost power. We listened to our transistor radios, and the most frightening moment was when that familiar phrase came over the airways - this is the Emergency Broadcast System. This is not a test.
RATH: Wendell Pierce writes about that time in his new memoir "The Wind In The Reeds." He grew up in Pontchartrain Park, a historically black neighborhood, thanks to the legacy of segregation.
PIERCE: And it was there that out of something ugly, we made something beautiful. It became an incubator for black talent - lawyers, doctors, housewives, postal workers creating a real bucolic situation for kids of my generation.
RATH: But going home after Katrina was like a nightmare.
PIERCE: We didn't make it back until - that was August 29, and we weren't able to go home until the first week in October. The water sat for three to four weeks in our neighborhood. It was the deepest part of the flooding in Pontchartrain Park. And it was the closest thing to what I imagine nuclear winter would look like. Everything was gray - no green, no life, mud caked on everything, ashen cars on top of homes, boats inside of the walls of a building. You had to drive off-road, really, as you avoided debris to go back into the neighborhood.
And for my parents, the silence in the car as we drove in further and further and further, not seeing anyone, with disbelief. And then when we turned the corner to come down my street and saw the house, we just all burst into tears because we knew that everything that house represented - the 50 years that my parents have lived there - it was like losing a family member, seeing the home destroyed. I thought then that the city of New Orleans would not come back - that it was over.
RATH: This book actually starts - it picks up in 2007, a couple of years after the hurricane with the performance of "Waiting For Godot." And could you explain why you chose to put that play on in New Orleans at that time?
PIERCE: It starts at that moment because it was an awakening. "Waiting For Godot," this essential play about two men in this void with only a tree and a road, with no sense of who they are, where they've been, where they hope to go - a real sense of desperation and loss - are waiting for something to help them, something to guide them, define who they are. They're waiting for Godot. They don't even know what or who Godot is.
And it's in that moment that they come to the realization in this play that the power that they truly have is within themselves. And Vladimir says at this place, in this moment of time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance. And that moment of the play, when I did it in the Lower Ninth Ward on that hallowed ground where so many people had died, it was the moment that we all realized that it's us. We're that mankind. We're in this moment of desperation, and we can't look for anything outside of ourselves. We can only find it within ourselves. And it was one of the most cathartic moments of my life, and it reminded me of the power of art.
RATH: Of course, when people think Wendell Pierce in New Orleans, they don't think Vladimir and Godot. They think Antoine Batiste.
PIERCE: Right on.
RATH: And "Treme."
RATH: You write in this book that getting the part of Batiste was divine intervention.
PIERCE: Yes. First of all, I needed to be home. I watched as my community was going through this post-traumatic stress. And this piece of culture that depicted their story became like group therapy in New Orleans. People around town would gather. And I saw the power of that television show. A piece of writing and a piece of acting and, most importantly, the music moved people to bring some sort of clarity to their desperation, some sort of meaning to the disaster, some sort of hope to what they were trying to do and remembering what was important to them and why they were fighting so hard to bring their city back.
My favorite line in the entire series was - I just want my city back. And it gave me an opportunity to participate in that, to honor that Moses generation that worked so hard to give me that wonderful bucolic life in Pontchartrain Park, but more importantly, the divine intervention it was. I got to spend the last four years of my mother's life with her. And for that, "Treme" was more than just a television show or a great job or a great opportunity to come home and rebuild my city. It was - it gave me the most profoundly beautiful moments of grace to spend the last moments with my mother.
RATH: There've been a lot of reflections about New Orleans and the 10th anniversary of Katrina recently. For you, though, personally, as this guy who grew up in Pontchartrain Park, I'm wondering how you're feeling looking back right now?
PIERCE: It brings me back to a great piece of art. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It's "A Tale Of Two Cities" because we learned that while we are moving forward and it's progressing and that we have recovered and there's a great resilience, that we still have a lot of work to do. And so it was a good thing to stop and reflect on where we were 10 years after the fact. Now it's time to act. At this place, in this moment of time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance.
RATH: That's Wendell Pierce. His new memoir is called "The Wind In The Reeds," and it's out on Tuesday. Loved speaking with you. Thank you so much.
PIERCE: Thank you.
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