"I've always dreamed of being a chameleon in my career" Wendell Pierce said the other day before a tech rehearsal of Broke-ology, "and I dreamed of working continually in film, theater, and TV."
Count all these aspirations fulfilled. Since graduating from Juilliard's drama program in the mid-1980s, and landing a bit part in the Tom Hanks flick The Money Pit, Pierce could fill half a Playbill with his credits.
When asked for highlights, however, he winnows the list to three. "'The Wire' has been the defining project of my career to date," says Pierce, referring to his five seasons as Detective Bunk Moreland on the absorbing HBO series set in Baltimore. "That was challenging work. It met with critical and audience success. It had great writing. It was the best of everything." For me and for millions of other "Wire" fans, Pierce and Bunk were an ideal fit: the actor's deep, mellow voice conveyed both Bunk's cigar-smooth pleasure in vice and his official attempts to uphold the more respectable joys of virtue.
Pierce, who came to the Broke-ology project through a Juilliard connection (playwright Nathan Louis Jackson also graduated from the school), mentions Sophocles' Oedipus plays as the second career highlight. "We did them in Athens, at the foot of the Parthenon. I was Creon in all three plays. For me those performances were the very meaning of catharsis."
Pierce's final highlight is the most personal: a performance of Beckett'sWaiting for Godot in the middle of a street intersection in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Pierce grew up in the city and has deep roots there. (His parents, who are coming up to the opening of Broke-ology on October 5, still live in New Orleans). "Doing Godot near the place where so many people I knew had lost their lives was extraordinary. It was an out-of-body experience. This play, which for some reason is known as an existentialist classic for urban sophisticates, became something that spoke directly to folks in the neighborhood."
Pierce, who praises Jackson's Broke-ology for its eloquent rootedness about another great American metropolis, Kansas City, is not content to address the rebuilding of New Orleans from afar. Last year, he started the non-profit Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation to acquire lots in the New Orleans neighborhood where he grew up, then build homes and sell them to local residents. The organization will also buy lots directly from residents. Geothermal, eco-friendly homes are being built on the land. "Shovels for the project go into the ground this week," Pierce says with justifiable pride.
Pierce and I got so busy talking about Pontchartrain Park development that I barely had time to ask him his other New Orleans-related project before the start of Broke-ology rehearsal intervened. He is one of the stars of "Treme" a new HBO series, created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer (of "The Wire"). The title refers to an historic New Orleans neighborhood called Tremé. (Referring to it as "Treme" is a kind of vulgarization.) The series pilot has been shot and Pierce will return full-force to the show once Broke-ologyhas completed its run. "I play a trombonist named Antoine Batiste," Pierce says. I want to ask the Pierce facetiously whether Antoine is any relation to the actor's Broke-ology co-star Francois Battiste. But rehearsal beckons.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.