Looked at one way, Davis’ proposed Katrina-themed R&B opera is just an excuse for Treme to feature a parade of overlooked New Orleans music legends from Clarence “Frogman” Henry to Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. Cameos from musicians have been a part of the series from the start, and Davis’ quest gives the show license to visit anyone it wishes as part of the story. But it’s doing more than that. The music of Henry, Johnson and, this week, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, has become as much a part of the city as its most-famous sites, but the artists behind the music have faded deep into the background. It fits into a larger theme the show’s explored from the beginning, but particularly in this season, regarding the way New Orleans loves its past but doesn’t always preserve it. One day a building is home to J&M Records, the next you can do your laundry there. It connects, too, to the ways the city uses culture to sell itself while often exploiting those who create the culture in the first place, a theme I suspect will emerge the more time Delmond spends with those who would build a jazz center that respects and “monetizes” the culture and the more Albert comes to depend on his status as a “culture bearer” to receive care.
But back, for the moment, to Crawford. Released in 1953, “Jock-A-Mo” was Crawford’s biggest hit, and has since become synonymous with New Orleans, both via Crawford’s version and the versions made famous by The Dixie Cups, Dr. John and other under the title “Iko Iko.” It’s a couple of Mardi Gras Indian chants that Crawford strung together without really knowing what they meant, but it gave him a career, even if, as he claimed, he never received any money from the song. It also gave New Orleans one of its theme songs.
Then, in 1963, Crawford was the victim of the police beating he references here, forcing a long recovery that effectively ended his music career and led him to give up secular music. It’s no wonder that Davis, who recognizes everyone, didn’t recognize him at the recording session for his grandson, Davell Crawford. Once he does, he knows he’s witness to something rare: Sugar Boy singing again. And so are we. Crawford died on Septemeber 15th of this year, just a few months after performing at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival. (I’m not sure when this episode was filmed.) Even if it didn’t serve the show around it, this season’s Davis’ plot is practically a public service, dragging back into the spotlight, if only for a few minutes, artists who haven’t been seen in a while before they disappear for good.
It does serve the bigger picture, however, this week especially, where Crawford’s story of police brutality connects with LP’s investigation and Toni’s attempt to bring down Wilson, the bad cop to end all bad cops. Their storylines converge in a home-cooked meal at Toni’s house followed by a trip to see a performance of Waiting For Godot drawing from the Katrina experience and staged among the ruins. (That production is by Paul Chan and one of the actors who starred in it was Treme’s own Wendell Pierce.) It also gives the episode, and the show, one of its most moving moments when Toni breaks down while watching. Godot, like Treme, is a piece about hope in the face of despair. By Samuel Beckett’s reckoning—at least how I’ve always read the play—it’s a hope that’s both foolish and necessary. But reading a play and seeing it staged, as Sofia later points out, are two different experiences entirely. And here are flesh-and-blood survivors dressed like contemporary Katrina survivors waiting to be rescued by Godot even as they start to think, as Toni’s fellow audience member points out, “Motherfucker ain’t comin’.” He may be right. And, within the text of the play itself, he is right. But I don’t think it’s despair that’s overwhelming Toni in that moment so much as recognition. She sees herself, to borrow a line from a different Beckett work, in characters who can’t go on and yet go on.
That’s true of her life in general and of her work in particular. Even if she takes down Wilson, the underlying problem doesn’t go away. It’s a brotherhood of corrupt cops that keeps an eye on LP, pulls over Sofia for not wearing a seatbelt, and just generally menaces those who would threaten a closed system of abuses and favor. Terry wants no part of it, only reluctantly accepting an upgrade to a suite in the hotel he’s chosen for a visit from his sons. But he has other reasons for being amenable since Megan (New Orleans actress Lara Grice), the hotel manager, is a friend. And maybe more. One of my favorite moments this week comes when Terry checks her out then gets caught looking, creating a moment of friction where both involved aren’t sure whether to be embarrassed or turned on. They work it out later. (Incidentally, Megan is introduced so casually I thought she must surely have been on the show before, but Grice’s only previous Treme credits listed on IMDB are as a voice actor. Am I forgetting something?)
Is their hook-up a moment of madness or something more? That’s a tune-in-next-week question, apparently. But if Antoine’s any indication, some people can turn that sort of thing on and off. Back from the road, he’s back to being a responsible husband and teacher, even going above and beyond by helping a student with her family’s bills. His well-intentioned manipulation of the system dovetails with Albert’s attempts to get help with his health care, though he doesn’t seem too optimistic about surviving, much less getting the care he needs at a price he can afford. His storyline grows more heartbreaking each week, but Peters’ performance—defiant even in the face of death—insures it’s never maudlin. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to break our hearts, though.
Speaking of broken hearts, I don’t like Jacques’ chances. It’s never been quite clear how seriously either Jacques or Janette takes their relationship, but there’s a moment this week that says everything. He gives her a look that can only be love. (A moment of acting without words comparable to Terry and Megan’s earlier interaction.) She asks him to go with her to the walk-in refrigerator—in order to talk about a possible recipe. In the end, he goes home alone. She’s got new dishes and pretty-girl waitresses who can’t be trusted to deliver them properly to worry about. Like so many of Treme’s characters, she’s trying to build something in a town in the habit of letting fall apart what it doesn’t tear down.
- On the subject of falling apart and tearing down: The NOAH sub-plot continues to develop, with Nelson now seeming not to understand the difference between drawing parallels between his business and a con game and actually treating his business like a con.
- So many great scenes tonight, few better than LaDonna and Albert coming to terms about how her bar could be used for Indian practice was one of the best. “You don’t just mask Indian, you mask businessman too.” “What burns is mine.” I would watch a spin-off of those characters running a bar together.
- Couples talk: Davis and Annie don’t seem in such great shape. Sofia’s boyfriend is 27? I don’t approve. Also, something seemed fishy about his reluctance to go see Godot. Is there more to it than a distaste of theater or am I being too suspicious of the guy?
- Add to the list of thrilling scenes this week: the Indian rehearsal.
- 50 percent of this season’s episodes have contained Goatwhore references. Here’s some Goatwhore. Good night.