An NAACP Image Award nominee, Wendell Pierce’s 2015 memoir “The Wind in the Reeds” (Riverhead Books, $27.95) is the result of a partnership — Pierce and co-writer Rod Dreher — that would appear to be the oddest of odd couples.
Pierce, in addition to being a fine actor (“The Wire,” “Selma,” “Treme,” the upcoming HBO movie “Confirmation” and, yes, CBS’ “The Odd Couple”), is a black guy from urban New Orleans who peppers social media with scathing commentary about the issues that divide races and social classes.
Dreher is a senior editor of and prolific contributor to The American Conservative magazine and website, a white guy from rural Louisiana who holds and freely shares stalwart rightward opinions on many of the same issues Pierce regularly addresses on Twitter and elsewhere.
Over a first get-acquainted lunch at Lüke arranged by Dreher’s literary agent, the men were understandably wary of one another.
“I might like this guy fine,” Dreher said he was thinking at the time, “but he’s probably not going to like me.
“I could tell he was a little tense, too. He was meeting with a right-wing white guy from the hills. ”
Pierce’s preparatory due diligence included reading Dreher’s own 2013 memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” which struck Pierce as “this wonderful book, touching and loving.”
“And then, you know, the political columns,” Pierce added. “He seemed like two different people.”
That first lunch revealed commonalities and eventually produced a book — a summary of Pierce’s life and career so far, but also a meditation on creative culture’s role in New Orleans’ recovery.
“The Wind in the Reeds” takes its title from a line in “Waiting for Godot,” a play that figures prominently in both Pierce’s life story and New Orleans’ post-Katrina cultural recovery timeline.
Pierce and J. Kyle Manzay brought the Samuel Beckett play to the below-the-waterline Gentilly and Lower 9th Ward neighborhoods in late 2007, a ghostly staging Pierce has described as “the most cathartic moment of my life.”
The collaboration between Pierce and Dreher could’ve mirrored the futile comic bickering of the play’s Vladimir and Estragon characters, but instead became a team that transcended the sum of its parts.
The icebreaker at Lüke was shared stories about how they’d left Louisiana as younger men — Pierce for New York to study at Juilliard, Dreher for a journalism job in Washington, D.C. — only to return from what Dreher described in an online post as “bittersweet exile from our homeland.”
“We had a great lunch that day, talking about family and the experience of leaving home and coming back,” Pierce said.
“We got into the journey of our lives and realized how much our Louisiana home life means to us,” Dreher said. “It was so human. We didn’t talk about politics. We didn’t talk about racial politics or cultural politics. We talked about home. We laughed. He told me stories about the things his family, his ancestors, had undergone.”
Driving home to St. Francisville after that meeting, Dreher told his wife he hoped he didn’t get the job, that the family stories Pierce had shared were “sacred.”
She said, “This could be something really spiritually challenging and beneficial for you.”
It was. The process of writing the book covered January through September 2014 and involved long interview hours at Pierce’s restored Pontchartrain Park home, as well as getting to know members of each other’s family. Also quite a bit of personal transformation.
Dreher said he now sometimes wonders “What would Wendell say about this?” before composing a piece or post.
“That is one of the longest-lasting gifts that Wendell has given me,” Dreher said. “It has expanded my horizons and opened my eyes and opened my heart.”
Pierce, who portrays conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in “Confirmation,” due to air in early 2016, said Dreher is now equally present when he’s confronted by someone with a political viewpoint he doesn’t share.
“The first person I think of is Rod,” Pierce said. “It’s like, ‘I have this friend. I understand his humanity and appreciate his humanity so much, I can actually hear you a little better now.’
“Rod gave me a sense of, ‘OK, I understand there’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot more humanity to it than you are able to express. Thank God I know Rod Dreher, because I wouldn’t be able to hear you at all.’”