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A Bit Player in Scenes from My Own Life

Shooting on St. Charles

As I said back in February:

I suppose that being an extra in a big film or television production is always kind of weird. But it’s a truly bizarre thing to reenact events that one has experienced firsthand.

I haven’t written anything more about my experiences as an extra for HBO’s Treme because I thought it might be bad form to disclose anything from a production so far in advance. But as Ray points out, we’re almost there now. I expect this episode may air either tomorrow night or next Sunday.

I don’t have any plot points to reveal, no spoilers, nothing like that. By now, those watching the show may have noticed Dinerral Shavers in the last couple episodes. Anyone who’s read this blog, anyone familiar with recent New Orleans history, will know where that’s headed: a senseless act of violence, and the March for Survival.

As for me, despite my extra work, I don’t really know much more than that.

Being an extra is weird because you’re participating in a simulation of reality, and typically you don’t really know much about the bigger picture. You don’t know how the final production will look. In that, it’s kind of like real life. We act our little part, and we don’t know how history will judge us. I suppose I knew more than most of the extras about the reality we were simulating, but I’m still in the dark with regard to the finished program. Yes, I spent a day riding buses all over New Orleans for various re-enactments of the 2007 march. But these scenes will probably amount to only a few minutes of screen time at most. I wasn’t privy to much of anything beyond that.

I felt like I was a bit player in scenes from my own life.

When HBO first contacted me, I’d hoped that I would end up talking to some of the writers, but that never happened. I thought I could provide some insight into the march and the surrounding events, the precipitating events and the aftermath. But with something of this magnitude, they could certainly get good information elsewhere. I hope they did.

My initial contact was with a woman named Kaia. I did share some details, which she dutifully noted, like the fact that we marched with a snare drum in honor of Dinerral, or the fact that we wore white. But that information was available through other sources, so I suspect it was redundant. Kaia worked in casting, I think, and seemed primarily interested in connecting with the neighborhood to recruit extras. She invited me to participate too.

So, instead of informing the story on background, I got a street-level view of the production of some big scenes. I spent the day rubbing elbows with people who were doing it for the paycheck, or for a lark. Some of the people on my bus had participated in the 2007 march but most had not. There were also volunteers who showed up for a few scenes; I don’t think they were paid at all.

I left the house around 6:30 AM and was back by 5:30 PM. They fed us twice, and the food was neither awful nor good. The coffee was excellent, which was a surprise. A few weeks later I got a check for just under a hundred bucks, after taxes.

One of the first things I saw that morning was a wardrobe item, a jacket memorializing Helen Hill. There was a printout of a video frame pinned to it, showing the original jacket that a friend of Helen’s had made and worn to the 2007 March for Survival. I remember seeing that jacket. (Or at least I think I do. Maybe my mind is starting to play tricks on me. I believe this is called creeping surrealism, and it must be an occupational hazard for those in the biz.) I found this attention to detail impressive. But strangely enough I didn’t feel anything when I saw this. I didn’t feel a chill run down my spine. I didn’t feel a renewed sense of loss. I didn’t feel anything. I just felt numb.

First we recreated the Mid-City march. In reality, the Mid-City marchers rallied in front of Helen and Paul’s old flooded house on Cleveland Avenue. In the recreation, we convened at a table set up behind Fisk Howard Elementary School, a few blocks away. Later, the “Hasty Ray” scene was shot on Banks Street. In reality, we marched on Canal Street, and we did not chant anything. The first is a minor detail. As for the latter, I’m not sure. I think the solemnity of our wordless march with a snare drum (in tribute to Dinerral Shavers) was more indicative of the mood of marchers on that day than jaunty protest chants. But we’ll see how it come out in the edit.

Next we were in the CBD re-enacting the convergence of marchers from the Bywater, Central City and Mid-City. The street geography was a little off, but the spirit of unity that this was clearly intended to represent was very true to my experience of the day. If anything, the directors had to caution the extras not to act too jubilant. “This isn’t about winning the Superbowl!” We’re used to second lines and parades around here; I think it’s hard for a bunch of New Orleanians to walk in the street together and not get happy.

Later I found myself uptown, and then down in the Tremé under the “bridge.” I wondered about the wisdom of using extras in multiple neighborhood scenes like that. Doesn’t it hurt continuity? How about my face in multiple scenes around town? I really was in Mid-City and the CBD on that day in 2007, and I wasn’t anywhere else, and I’d like to think that detail matters. Hey, I may not be Meryl Streep, but a few people might recognize me. Then again, I may not even appear on screen, so we’ll just have to see.

I’m hipster-positive, as a rule, but nevertheless there was this one guy, a fellow extra, who really annoyed me. We were on St. Charles Avenue, and the directors were orchestrating the convergence of a white marching contingent and a black marching contingent. This hipster dude didn’t like how they were segregating the extras racially, and I have to admit he had a point. Crowds of any size here are usually mixed in my experience; making the crowd all-white was overkill. But the hipster dude started sounding off about how race is not an issue in New Orleans. He seemed to have a mental image of a city with no racial tension, no harsh disparities, no animosities, no ugliness. It was a wonderfully naïve vision. Maybe I saw things that way myself once. I tired explaining how anxiety over race relations played a major role in the politics of the moment that we were reenacting, but he didn’t want to hear it. Of course he only moved here a year ago. What a mook.

It’s my sense that the march will be depicted as a moment of unity for the city of New Orleans. But a moment of unity implies an underlying division.

I kept wondering when we would finish with the marching and get around to the rally. We never did. Finally I got word that the rally would be recreated from archival footage. I believe Dinerral’s sister, Nikita Shavers, will be the only speaker featured. But who knows? I’ll have to tune in to watch just like everybody else. Maybe I’ll see myself. Maybe I won’t. That doesn’t matter to me. I wasn’t in this for glory.

Until then, you can check out this set of photos I took throughout the course of the day. Be sure to read the captions as they expand upon the matters I’ve touched on here.

In the end, I’m glad I did it. I’m a fan of Treme. It’s the only TV show I follow, actually. Yesterday I gave a tour of the Lafitte Corridor to people from all over the country, who are here in town for the Fit Nation New Orleans conference. As I talked to my group, I found we touched on Treme repeatedly. At the very least, it’s a mechanism for accessing the city’s complex culture, which is a powerful thing. And, perhaps, it’s much more. History will be the judge.

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