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"Treme's" Unique Star: New Orleans

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The music, the food, the culture, the disasters. The show brings the Big Easy to life in a natural, jazzy way.

Shooting has just wrapped for the season on HBO's “Treme," and Khandi Alexander is packing up, trying to fit Zulu parade coconuts and Mardis Gras beads into her boxes along with an overflow of bittersweet memories.

“What we've gone through down here in the past few months it seems surreal. I don't have the vocabulary to describe it," says the actress, whose inner fire and sharp-etched strength have helped make her character, New Orleans bar owner LaDonna Batiste-Williams, one of the standouts in the new show from David Simon, creator of HBO's “The Wire."

So much has been remarkable from being enmeshed in the storm-ravaged city in January when the Saints won the Super Bowl (an event she describes as “magical") to being there in April, when “Treme" began to air, and once-skeptical locals embraced it to the point of gathering at bars and house parties every Sunday night to watch.

But the event that still pains her is the memory of the collapse on set of David Mills, the Emmy-winning writer and co-executive producer with whom her creative relationship goes back to HBO's “The Corner," in which she played a drug addict. Mills, 48, died of a brain aneurysm just 12 days before “Treme" would premiere. “He was a gentle giant and incredibly talented," she says quietly. “You just always wanted to give him your best, and if he smiled after you finished one of his scenes, you knew you had it."

The mix of tragedy and celebration that Alexander is now sifting through seems all of a piece with the tone of “Treme," a one-hour drama that revels in the unique traditions and music of New Orleans even as it rails against the natural and man-made disasters that have left the city devastated and dispersed.

Writer-producer Eric Overmyer, who co-created “Treme" with Simon, says the two men didn't set out to write a show about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since the mid-1990s, they'd dreamed of crafting a fictional show simply about musicians, without relying on cops, crime scenes and lawyers to provide infrastructure. “What interested us about New Orleans was the culture, the food, the language," says Overmyer, who first collaborated with Simon on HBO's “Homicide: Life on the Streets" and who's maintained a second home in the Crescent City since 1989.

Then the epic storm swamped the levee system and put 80% of the city under water, searing into national memory the images of stranded residents enduring an agonizing wait for aid. “We couldn't ignore that this had happened," said Overmyer, “so it became a show about musicians and other people in New Orleans trying to put their lives back together after the storm. But the storm is the context for the show, not the reason for it. The culture is the reason."

Of course, raw-edged authenticity in depicting that culture is a given from a writer-producer like Simon, whose Baltimore-set crime series “The Wire" prompted journalist Bill Moyers to describe him as the Charles Dickens of the television medium. From the opening scene, in which trombonist Antoine Batiste ( Wendell Pierce of “The Wire") hustles up to take his place in a traditional brass band during a street parade, the show's focus on the way a musician sees the world has been unique and exhilarating. One of the most striking aspects of its code of authenticity has been the abundant use of live, local music.

“Most shows record the music beforehand in a studio, and then have musicians pretend to play," says Blake Leyh, the show's music supervisor. “But very early on we decided that in 'Treme,' any music you saw being performed would be recorded then and there and also, it would be music you would have heard in that situation at that time."

The live music policy quickly became a way to help sustain the city's musical culture. “We hire so many local musicians to play live and pay them decently," Leyh points out. “And whenever possible we have them play their own compositions, so that they're also getting paid for the rights to the music."

HBO has renewed “Treme" for a second season, so Alexander knows she'll be back in the fall. But for now, she notes, “we're working with so many locals who have lived through the actual events of Katrina. Situations can be delicate, and you want to be respectful at all times. Maybe if the show has the good fortune to run for several years, I'll finally feel like I can kick off my shoes."

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