In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Imagined Community

From Baltimore, we have landed into the heat of New Orleans, into music, reconstruction, and the middle of a film set: Treme, David Simon's series set three months after Hurricane Katrina, now filming its second season.

For the first time on our journey, life elides into art. A New Orleans night club, The Blue Nile, plays itself. The gorgeous Wanda Rouzan is bluesing up the stage. Cameras roll, scenes are acted and then re-enacted, New Orleans is dismantled and then rebuilt as drama: Wendell Pierce waiting on the sidelines, speaks his lines to himself; Wendell Pierce metamorphosing into Antoine Batiste, strides up on stage, trombone in hand.

Later on, someone in our group makes an observation: behind the cameras on Treme, she says, is an all-white production team; meanwhile African American actors, musicians, and extras are directed like chess pieces across the set. This says something, she contends, about power structures, about who tells the story, and how the story gets told. Against my better judgment, I pick a fight. For me, Treme is a moving collaboration between an artistic vision, a city's reality, and a community's regeneration. The series is both a story and a city in progress, and music is its continuity. I make my argument (inchoately, most likely, thanks to the drink in my hand), and then we agree to disagree.

Collapsed in my drink, I think of Charlie Duff who yesterday led us on an intricate, profound, and troubling journey down both the gracious avenues and modern ruins of Baltimore City. Race relations in America, he said, do not bring out the best in anyone. What we need, he argued, is an "atmosphere of equality", we need to find a way beyond the current demarcations. In 1962, after black Americans had begun buying homes in white neighborhoods, Baltimore City bought a street and demolished the buildings. Why? To create a "fire break", to stop the "fire" from spreading. Crossing this demarcation, this boundary, was designed to be unpleasant.

Later on, we stand with David Simon on Decatur Street, where production crew, extras, residents and tourists move in nebulae along the pavement. He tells us how life has fed his art, how he went from being a newspaperman to a dramatist, how he found a route, via fiction, to talk about what matters to him. Treme, he tells us, is about how New Orleans is rebuilding itself, and how culture is one of the avenues by which it is traveling back. He tells us that The Wire and Treme are about ordinary people and that the stakes are human scale. "It sounds small compared to 24," he tells us, laughing. He says he intends to tell the story of what's there, what's here, but he does not expect it to change anything.

Back on the film set, a tall beauty in golden stilettos walks across The Blue Nile. A slender man dangles two bottles of beer by their necks. They do this over and over again, each time a little better, a little more perfectly themselves. When I look at Wendell Pierce, I can't help but see both Bunk Moreland and Antoine Batiste, Baltimore and New Orleans. Fiction has a value. If some vision of these two cities, past and future, doesn't exist in the imagination, human scale, will anyone fight to bring the cities back?

1 comment:

  1. Truth in the eye, the angle, and the details. You've just shown me a corner of the world that was only a news story before. Merci!