by Orissa Arend
Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native and highly acclaimed actor on stage, film, and television once said that “art is a tangible forum where we can come together and decide what’s important. Ultimately, it comes down to family, community.” His leading role in Brothers from the Bottom, now playing at NOCCA’s Lupin Theater is an exquisitely joyful, wrenching, thought-provoking way of doing just that.
Pierce, a native son, is performing on the stage of his alma mater, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). His teacher and early encourager Chakula Cha Jua sits in the audience’s front row as the story—one Pierces likely understands intrinsically—unfolds. Chris (played by Wendell Pierce) has an Oz-like devotion to his Seventh Ward home. His brother Trey (played by Wendell Franklin) left what he saw as the mean streets as soon as he could to become a lawyer in New York, marry a beautiful, talented, mixed-race woman, and grab a fist full of the American Dream.
Their disparate world views create the central tension in the play as, five years after Hurricane Katrina they “temporarily” share a shotgun double where they grew up. They fight to save their Seventh Ward neighborhood which is being bulldozed for a new medical complex, one by investing in shiny new condos and the other by fighting for the long-term renters and homeowners who are in danger of being displaced.
Yes, it’s about gentrification. But it’s also about the complex tensions within the “Black soul,” as several characters referred to it, having to come to terms with a history – in this case a childhood – which was both violent and nurturing. What is the measure of success for a Black man? Who was Daddy proud of? Cars, card games, emotions, sacrifice and hard work all figure in.
The play is also about gender relationships. The women are fierce, determined, lovable, warm, graceful and just-right counterparts to their men. Lindsay, Trey’s wife, chooses to identify as Black even though she could pass for White, which has relationship implications.
Art and “real” life intersect in this play to effect healing. Can we miss the cosmic irony that both brothers in the play are called Wendell in real life? Also poignant is that Pierce grew up in Pontchartrain Park. He says, “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.”
Pierce told journalist Derrick Hemphill, “It came out of a great civil rights movement. A.P. Tureaud the great civil rights lawyer in New Orleans, who lead an effort to end segregation in the parks and green spaces. Out of this advocacy, Pontchartrain Park was born. Even though it was separate but equal, it was going to be 200 acres set aside separate so Black folks could buy in this new post World War II subdivision. But we took something ugly, separate but equal, and made it beautiful by making it an incubator for talent. The Morial family was there, and (former EPA director) Lisa Jackson, Terence Blanchard – who’s a Grammy award-winning musician, and myself came out of there.”
That ugliness and separation, Pierce explains in the talk-back after the play, were created by FDR when red-lining for FHA loans was institutionalized. “If horse thieves, whores, or even one Negro lived in a neighborhood,” Pierce said, “a red line around it meant you couldn’t get a loan to buy a house.” That stroke of a pen initiated generations of economic affirmative action for whites only.
Pierce, who studied acting at Juilliard, came back home after the levees broke and has been a tireless advocate for our recovery in a myriad of ways. He knows first hand of the heartache, the longing, the anger and the triumph that our recovery has revealed. So it’s no wonder that he’s pitch-perfect in the part.
But what of the other five New York actors who are pitch-perfect also and give dazzling performances as the brothers’ wives, the real estate developer, brother Trey, and the young friend of the family who is the spot-on voice of uncensored Black consciousness. How did they get it so right, the audience asked the cast after the play?
Toccarra Cash who plays Malika, Chris’s wife, said in the talk-back that she let herself be the mid-west Ohio girl that she is but found that she could also channel her southern grandparents and thus find her roots in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. Kevin Mambo who hilariously plays Lou, the family friend, knew he had a lot of studying to do to be accurate as a sort of “Greek chorus” as he put it. He’s a jazz saxophonist who was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Canada. He must have done his homework, because he nailed it.
The play took the audience from laughter to tears throughout and had the audience swaying along to a fantastic rendition of the Mardi Gras Indian song, “Indian Red.” “We won’t bow down,” kind of sums up the spirit of the play. The audience was audibly responsive – groaning, laughing, and affirming. It was no surprise to learn from Hannah Augillard sitting front and center, that many of her church members from St. Paul of the Apostles Catholic Church, where Pierce grew up, were in attendance and couldn’t be prouder of one of “their own.”
After the play, Pierce invited Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell to share the stage. She was as eloquent as the actors in speaking about how the issues of race and gentrification in 2015 are the very ones that the play deals with. “We should have started work on these issues in 2010, the time the play represents” she said.
The play didn’t pit good guys against bad guys. You could sympathize with all the characters. During the talk-back Pierce advised giving each other the benefit of the doubt, that we all love New Orleans. He said, “The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a significant moment in the history of our country. Brothers from the Bottom does what art does best: challenge, elevate and illuminate the conversation.”
Orissa Arend is the author of Showdown in Desire: the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.