is no secret that art often imitates life, but for actor
Wendell Pierce, life also has a way of taking on
elements from art. He sees it in the way he and the
community of New Orleans rebounded after Hurricane
Katrina ravaged the city 10 years ago. New Orleans art,
he says, whether in the form of food, the unique jazz
funeral or second line brass bands, helped to restore
the one-of-a-kind spirit the city is known for,
something he describes in his new book, "The Wind
in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play and the City That Would
Not Be Broken" (Riverhead; 352 pages, $27.95).
was born and raised in the Pontchartrain Park
neighborhood of New Orleans. After graduating from high
school, he attended the Julliard School to study drama.
Though he would intermittently make visits to the city
to see family, it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina hit
that he returned to help restore his childhood
neighborhood, which had been wiped out by the storm. In
2012, he started the nonprofit Pontchartrain Park
Community Development Corp. to build homes in the area,
and he is also part of a team that started a chain of
grocery stores, Sterling Farms, in the 9th Ward.
memoir, part history lesson, the book takes readers
through Pierce’s own connection to the city and his
"role of a lifetime" in the HBO series "Treme."
He spoke by phone about his book, the power of art and
the process of rebuilding his hometown.
How did Hurricane Katrina affect your life personally?
It was such a defining, pivotal moment for me when my
family realized not only did we lose possessions, but we
lost memories. The entire world that I knew, of my
neighborhood, city and community, was destroyed in a
flash. It was an epiphany for me, something that woke me
up. I wanted to find out what and who and where is
important to me. And when the time comes that some young
kid asks, "In your family’s darkest hour, what
did you do?" I wanted to have an answer.
You assert that art has played a redeeming, restorative
role for those affected by the hurricane. What, for you,
The whole of art itself is something lost in America. We
see art as just entertainment, when entertainment is a
byproduct of art, a residual. Its purpose is reflective
and restorative. Art and the form of art is where we
collectively reflect on where we’ve been, where we are
and what are our values are, and then we act on them.
for example, is jazz, the most American art form to date
(created by enslaved Africans in New Orleans’ Congo
Square, as discussed in the book). This was their
artistic freedom until physical freedom came. Freedom of
improvisation within form itself was a reflection of
their human condition. That is a tangible way that those
Africans took art and made it an expression of their
desired freedom that’s going to last for generations
In the first chapter of the book, you speak of putting
on the play "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel
Beckett in a Lower 9th Ward that had yet to be rebuilt.
What from that play has been reflected in the lives of
those who attended?
"At this place, in this moment in time, all mankind
is us. Let us do something while we have a chance."
That line (from the play) rang out. It was an awakening
for everyone who was there. It was rejuvenating and
there was a realization that we have to find that
strength of recovery from within ourselves. The play
teaches you that if you wait for something outside of
yourself to change your condition, it won’t happen. We
realized we were all a part of something pretty
extraordinarily destructive and damaging, but we couldn’t
let this moment pass without committing to community and
Many know you from "The Wire," but your role
on "Treme," which was set in New Orleans,
allowed you to return to the city in the years following
the hurricane. You say it was "more than a job,
more than a TV show." How so?
It brought me home during the most important years after
the flood to try to help restore my community, the
neighborhood and, more importantly, my family. It was an
opportunity to answer that question of what I did myself
in New Orleans after the city was destroyed. Those were
precious days that could never be replaced. The thing
that was rejuvenating was, one crawfish etouffee at a
time, one second line at a time, people expressed their
culture (through this show).
What does the city look like today?
The city has come back — home prices are up, the
economy is growing and there’s an influx of new
business and entrepreneurial spirits — but we can’t
look at our recovery through rose-colored glasses. There
are still neighborhoods where there hasn’t been
political will to bring it back and there are barriers
to economic development. We’re going through a battle
of the haves and the have-nots with a disparity in
resources that haven’t been equally distributed in the
city. It’s a tale of two cities, the best of times
and, for many, still the worst of times.
What do you hope people take away from "The Wind in
I want people to see that there is a great legacy that
has come from generations prior and learn from that, how
it can be empowering. I want them to see how easily a
city can be destroyed in one night, but how it can be
rebuilt and restored because of the resilience of its
people and because of their vision and exercising their
right of self-determination. I hope people see the role
of art as clearly as I see it in my life and how
examples of the power of art are on display in the
history and legacy of my family and Louisiana and New