When Wendell Pierce returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and saw the destruction in his hometown, he was galvanized to take action.
“It was a stand-up moment for me,” said Pierce from Toronto, where he was filming an episode of USA’s “Suits.” “I knew I had to do whatever I could to help the city recover and heal. I needed to have an answer to the question: ‘What did you do in New Orleans’ darkest hour?’ I am an artist, so that is my contribution.”
With acting skills honed at Juilliard, the alumnus of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts has immersed himself ever since in roles that aim to make sense of the disaster and its aftermath.
First there was his appearance in the landmark “Waiting for Godot” in 2007, staged outside in the Lower 9th Ward and in Gentilly. Then came his unforgettable portrayal of musician Antoine Batiste in HBO’s critically acclaimed “Treme” from 2010 to 2013.
Now, Pierce brings “Brothers from the Bottom” to the stage at NOCCA’s Lupin Hall from Friday, June 5, to June 28.
Written by Jackie Alexander, a New Orleans native and artistic director of the Billie Holiday Theatre, the play premiered in March in Brooklyn to positive reviews from critics, including The New York Times. Pierce stars in and co-produces the New Orleans staging of Alexander’s post-Katrina play.
“The story is about two brothers, one who has never left New Orleans and the other who has returned. They live side by side in a typical New Orleans shotgun. Both are committed to seeing their neighborhood recover from Katrina, but they have very different ideas about how to make that happen. And their differences threaten to tear their family and their neighborhood apart,” he said.
Tony Award winner Pierce portrays Chris, the brother whose concerns about losing the character of his neighborhood strain his relationship with his brother Trey, played by Emmy Award winner Kevin Mambo.
Trey sees gleaming redevelopment as the best course of action to move the neighborhood ahead. The G word — gentrification — supercharges their conflict, which takes place five years after the storm.
“No one is a villain, and there are valid points on both sides of the debate,” Pierce said. “Their conflict rests on defining what’s important, what matters. Isn’t that at the heart of the discussion going on in New Orleans right now? Portland is a beautiful city, but we don’t want to be Portland — we’re New Orleans. Sustaining our culture is a delicate balance.”
Doing that — sustaining the culture — is the reason Pierce partnered with businessman Troy Henry to help rebuild Pontchartrain Park. The two also opened Sterling Grocery to bring fresh goods to an area of Marrero labeled a “food desert” (the store has since closed).
“I always hated people who just complain, and I swore I’d never be one. You can only be heard if you bring a plan to the table,” he said. “You have to propose action and make a commitment.”
The Pontchartrain Park project has moved slower than Pierce would have liked, but he points to the fact that its progress continues as more homes are built and more families take up residence.
“In 1955, the Park was the first idyllic American suburb specifically for black families. I know how long and how hard couples like my parents fought for their new homes and for their neighborhood,” he said. “I felt a call to action to honor their sacrifices and their hard work by helping Pontchartrain Park get back on track.”
Somehow, Pierce fits in his civic activism despite realizing his goal of appearing in at least one play, one movie and one television show per year.
“It’s what I call the trifecta,” he said. “I find that I grow as an actor when I perform in different forums and genres, and I like to mix comedy and drama. Art is a tangible forum where we can come together and decide what’s important. Ultimately, it comes down to family, community.”
Recently, it was revealed Pierce will play Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the HBO film, “Confirmation.”
“The man has gone a decade on the bench not saying a word,” Pierce said, “He’s an enigma to me. I have been trying to get to know him.”
Shooting starts soon after “Brothers from the Bottom” opens in New Orleans, meaning Pierce will be on stage in New Orleans on the weekends and flying to Los Angeles and Atlanta to shoot the film during the week.
“You can’t beat that,” he said. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”