MJ: With so much redevelopment in New Orleans, is the city at risk of losing its unique flair?
WP: There are those who don't want the city to come back to come back the way it is. There are those who want to get rid of the poor, to not make it a black city again—so you have to fight those fights. Listen, we had someone who openly on the front page of the Wall Street Journal after Katrina saying that we're going to be able to get rid of the people we don't want. Like this so-called experiment of the charter school system. Take John McDonogh, we call it John Mac, one of the toughest schools prior to the storm, where we actually had a double murder with an AK-47 in the gym. Tough school. Came back. The state has taken over the education system. Now we have the state superintendent who said unless you give this school over to a charter school, I won't appropriate the money to renovate John McDonogh. People say, "Well why, Wendell, why would you want those poor kids in that neighborhood school?" Because there's nothing in the new policies that guarantees the neighborhood kids get to go to their neighborhood school—under the guise of open admissions there are prerequisites, there are qualifiers, and that's not open admissions. It's upside-down; it's focusing on all of those students who can take advantage of the choices of charter schools. But what if it's a kid who doesn't have responsible parents? Who doesn't come from a really great home? We say, "Tough luck." And I've had people tell me what about personal responsibility? When he or she becomes 18, yes, personal responsibility, but until then they are at the mercy of those subpar parents and subpar people around them. That's not the role of public education.
My mother was a teacher for 40 years. She was part of the United Teachers of New Orleans. The water hadn't even receded out of New Orleans yet, people were still on top of their rooftops, waving, waiting to be rescued, and the priority the state takes is to get rid of all the teachers. Fired all the teachers, a predominantly African American female union, shut down over night.
Alright, I'm going to get off my soapbox—I'm talking to Mother Jones all of a sudden there!
MJ: I don't know, maybe people should be calling you Mayor Wendell.
WP: It's not about Mayor.
MJ: Well, maybe down the road.
WP: I choose to try to do those things that are necessary, from outside in.
MJ: You play a musician in Treme. You taught yourself to play the trombone, is that right?
WP: Well, yes, I'm learning how to play the trombone. I wouldn't call myself a musician.
MJ: Have you ever played a musical instrument—like when you were growing up?
WP: In New Orleans, every kid at least grabs a trumpet for a week. I made it to two weeks.
MJ: How do you typically prepare for roles? Like for Antoine, for B.B. King in an upcoming movie, or Bunk for that matter.
WP: It's really just complete immersion into the world. With Bunk, I actually hung out with the real Bunk in Baltimore. I sat in on ride-alongs, interrogations, went to crime scenes, all of that. You ask those personal questions about why they became police officers, what's important to them, and you combine that with your own creations in the role. Not that "Ooh, I always wanted to become a detective." That's great. No, I became a detective because I wanted to change, I wanted to get at that 1 percent who are making it awful for everybody else, that small element of crime that's overwhelmingly disproportionately affecting good, hard working people. I discovered, across the board, specifically why African American men became police officers was because the force didn't reflect the neighborhood they grew up in. And many times they know the exact criminals they're going to be chasing. And that was reflected in The Wire at one point with Bunk and Omar. When it comes to Treme, I grew up with so many musicians: Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harris, Harry Connick Jr. I was a big fan of Rebirth Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins. So to research Antoine was a lot easier.
MJ: What do think you'd be doing now if you weren't acting?
WP: I would be another artist in a different field. I have so much love for art. In America we have lost the sense of what is important about art. Where we as a community reflect on our journey, why we're here, what we hope to be, our faults, our strengths, our inadequacies, our triumphs. As you lie awake in bed at night and wonder about your life and reflect on your life what those thoughts are to the individual, art is to the community as a whole.
Doing Treme, you get to see the power of art because all around the city of New Orleans there are watch parties. People talk about it in a different way on Monday, and it helps them deal with the recovery that they're in the midst of. Because it's someone actually recognizing what we've gone through just a few short years ago were about four years about the actual show itself. It just lets you know that although you may not feel it, you have made some progress, that there's some reflection on what you've done, what you've gone through, how much further you have to go. And you couldn't get a better example of that than on Sunday night in New Orleans, where all over the city people are watching this show Treme and its almost like a group therapy session.
MJ: You saw the movie The Help with your mother. You called it "segregation light"—it struck a pretty personal chord in you, yes?
WP: The movie is touching; it's well done. But it struck a chord in me—that my mother who lived through segregation, who had seen the pain of having someone burn up someone's home and car because a nigger wasn't supposed to own a new car. The reason I grew up in New Orleans was that my mother from Assumption Parish had to come to New Orleans because that was the closest school for any black person—there was no school for black kids in her parish, no high schools. You could only go to the city, and Booker T. Washington was the only school you were allowed to go to. You have to realize the depth and the evilness of segregation, that people died. I did a play in New York, about George Stinney Jr., who was the youngest person ever executed [in the 20th century] at 14 in 1944 for killing two white girls, and they coerced a false confession out of him by offering the kid ice cream, which he loved. Sitting there knowing that this was a real person who was executed just a generation ago, a little 14-year-old black kid lost his life because of that evilness; when we saw The Help, I looked and saw my mother and she was just seething, and she told me something that I'd never heard before—she said, "When I was college, my summer job I was the help. I couldn't use the bathroom in the home. I had to go outside." She said that as bad as life was depicted in the movie, it couldn't compare to how awful it was. So it was an emotional rollercoaster to watch it with my mother, to see her anger and pain. It was a palatable easy way to kind of make a comment about segregation. For her it was segregation light—it wasn't enough. Every year there are a multitude of films, at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York, the American Black Film Festival in Miami, films that never get distribution because the stories are not going to be so palatable, films that never get distribution because they actually deal with subject matter that Hollywood never opens its mind to.
MJ: David Simon's white, obviously, but The Wire, it got critical acclaim but it didn't get into everyone's living room for the same reasons.
WP: It's the same thing. All of a sudden they don't want to see it. Because of certain assumptions and because of stereotypes. I'll give you a perfect example. Many people have come up to me and said, "Hey, man, I always heard about The Wire." Black folk too. "But I don't want to see it. It's the same ol' thing: We are always the thugs, always the criminals." I say, "Hold it now, did you see it?" I said. "We're the mayor, the police commissioner. Yeah, we're the drug dealers too. There's teachers, there's lawyers, there's a more truthful authentic portray of black folk." Even in Treme, people say, "Why all the black people don't have a job on Treme?" I'm like. "Hold it, I have a job: I'm a musician. I may be a scalawag, but I'm taking care of my kid and my girl. Big Chief is a great carpenter. You have the dentist [and] my ex-wife, who owns her own small business. What show you looking at?"
But people are so conditioned by formulaic television and formulaic movies. You bring them reality, and people don't even recognize it because they're so conditioned by what the media has portrayed. If I told people, "Hey, listen, I'm going to have a sensationalized murder trial of a running back superstar African American who has killed his ex-wife who's Caucasian, lead prosecutor is going to be a white female, with a African American male as a prosecutor, he's going to have an Armenian defense attorney, with an American Jewish lawyer on the defense team, also, the judge is going to be Asian"—people would be like, "Ah man, come on, this rainbow coalition!" And you know, it's the O.J. Simpson trial! But Hollywood would see it as, that's not truthful, that's not real.
MJ: What role of yours are your parents most proud of do you think?
WP: I think they're proud of the work I'm doing in New Orleans in real life, trying to redevelop Pontchartrain Park. As a young couple they came there over 50 years ago at the height of segregation. It was the only place where blacks could buy homes. He was a young soldier coming back from World War II. It was just an idea; it was a real leap of faith for them to purchase a home and create this neighborhood. It was separate but equal, so out of something ugly, their generation made something beautiful.
And so here it is 50 years later where [Pontchartrain Park] is an incubator of talent. The first black mayor, Dutch Morial, his son Marc Morial became mayor. Lisa Jackson, who's the EPA director now. Terence Blanchard, multi-Grammy-award-winning trumpet playing and jazz composer. I dare put myself in that mix. And lawyers and doctors and different leaders of the community, and it became an incubator of talent, what Baldwin Hills is to LA, what Sweet Auburn is to Atlanta. It was the black working class and middle class. And in their golden years it was destroyed by Katrina, and I knew that we owed it to their generation to put out a call to action to everybody in my generation to step up to the plate to rebuild it so that when they leave this earth they know that what was the foundation for all their kids to go off and be successful citizens and people of the world isn't lost, and that that legacy is passed on. I think that's the thing their proudest of. When it comes to acting, they're just happy that I'm working.