Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wendell Pierce: A soaring and eloquent voice speaks out about the redemptive and healing power of art

Wendell Pierce's memoir, 'The Wind in the Reeds:
A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken'
is about the redemptive and healing power of art and
about New Orleans, a city he loves so dearly.

From his leading roles in HBO's The Wire and Treme to his feature film appearances in Selma, Ray and Waiting to Exhale, I've admired the work of the Tony Award-winning actor and producer Wendell Pierce for many years.

When I learned a few months ago that Pierce would be coming to the Bay Area to speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on October 30, I marked it on my calendar and bought tickets to this Arts & Ideas lecture. For more than an hour last Friday evening, Pierce spoke in both a soaring and eloquent tone of voice about the redemptive and healing power of art and about New Orleans, the city of his birthplace and the origin of his creativity. It is a city that he loves so dearly.

Pierce has written a new memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, that is truly a page-turner.

'The Wind in the Reeds' is truly
a page-turner.
Both poignant and redemptive, in The Wind in the Reeds, Pierce tells the stories of his family, his city and his creative journey in the arts, and how they are all connected to one another. And, just as importantly, how they are "precious and worth saving, and how art has been critically important in revitalizing this unique American city."

On the back of the book's dust jacket, James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, writes:

"This is more than a memoir. It's an adventure in history, encompassing the timeless elements that propelled this fourth-generation grandson of a slave into one of the most important dramatic actors of our age: family, art, truth, religion, and of course a mother's love. This is a story of sacrifice and blood struggle, of victory and selflessness, told with deep humility and grace by one of the most important American artists of our generation."

Pierce, 51, writes in his memoir: "We know who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves and our world. We know who we are through the family and community of whose stories we are a part.

"We make our stories. And our stories make us.

"I am not sure the stories of my family are art, exactly. After all, they came down to me not as objects to be admired for their beauty. Then again, they contain so much truth and goodness that they cannot help being beautiful as well. Their trials, their triumphs, the virtues that gave them the strength to overcome -- all of these things live in the stories my family shares as an inheritance that grows as we invest in it each successive generation.

"I draw creative strength from my roots buried deep in south Louisiana. Until the storm, I did not appreciate how much those roots were the veins connecting my heart to the body of historical experience that gave birth to the man I am today, and the man -- and the artist -- I am becoming every day."

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans in 2005, Pierce has devoted much time and energy helping to rebuild the flood-ravaged Pontchartrain Park, a black middle-class neighborhood which became the first African-American post-war suburb, where was raised by his parents -- his father retired from the military and became a photographer and his mother was a school teacher. "In my family, we have a motto: Don't ever tell me you can't do something."

Throughout the evening, Pierce kept returning to the themes of a love of family and community in describing what brought him back to his roots and the need to do something positive to help in the city's recovery, to pick up the pieces. He so very much wanted to see his city to come back. So, he became a community rebuilder.

Wendell Pierce (right) performing in 'Waiting for Godot'.
The actor said it was a cathartic experience for him
and it reminded him of the power of art.
"It was an awakening."
"After Katrina, there were miles and miles of destruction and nothing there, nothing was right. And yet, we stagger onward rejoicing," said Pierce. One of the ways the actor helped his community rebuild -- and by extension his city -- was by performing in what became a legendary production of Waiting for Godot, which was staged in two of the neighborhoods that were most damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It became a chance for the city of New Orleans to come together and to celebrate "the human capacity for resilience."

In a recent NPR interview, Pierce said performing Waiting for Godot was a cathartic experience for him and it reminded him of the power of art. "It was an awakening. Waiting for Godot, this existential 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 do -- a real sense of desperation and loss, awaiting for something to help them something to guide them, to find 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.'"

In his book, Pierce writes of the "collaborative potential that art has to heal ourselves, our families and our communities." On Friday, Pierce reminded us of this, saying: "We reflect on who we are as a society and community. The legacy of New Orleans can be seen through the arts. Everything comes together as we deal with life."

Photo of Wendell Pierce at JCCSF Arts & Ideas: © Michael Dickens, 2015.
Photo of Wendell Pierce in 'Waiting for Godot': Courtesy of Google Images.

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