Minstrel Show in a Three-Day Stubble of a City

May 4, 2011
By | 5 Comments

The first season of Treme focused primarily on New Orleans citizens, developing tensions between those who stayed and those who came back and those who decided to stay away. In contrast, the second season shapes up to reconnect the city with the world around it: real estate developers move in to exploit the disaster and New Orleaneans move out; outsiders experience the city and natives get confronted with outsider views of New Orleans. There are two moments in the first two episodes that strike this cord particularly: Delmond Lambreaux’s argument about New Orleans music with fellow jazz lovers and Janette Desautel’s conversation with her fellow cooks after reading Alan Richman’s devastating review.

Both characters have left New Orleans (in Delmond’s case, his hometown; in Janette’s, the city where she built–and lost–her own restaurant) for New York and are deeply ambivalent about New Orleans and their relationship to it. Whereas the first season played out these competing emotions between and among New Orleaneans, the introduction of outside points of view indicates a lack of understanding and overall ignorance as well as deeply seated prejudices now serving the dismissal of the city. Both scenes linguistically demarcate outsider status when the interlocutors pronounce the city [ˈnuː ɔrˈliːnz] rather than [nuː ˈɔrliənz] or [nuː ˈɔrlənz] as would be expected and more correct. Janette, in fact, offhandedly corrects the other sous chef.

Delmond has represented the New Orleans expatriate throughout the first season already. He goes where the jobs are and at times seems conflictedly ashamed and dismissive of his roots. In one of the early recording sessions in Season 1, we see him with other New Orleans players play New Orleans music for New Orleans citizens, yet the recording takes place in New York. In fact, the issue of how to mainstream market authentic New Orleans music in order to help the very citizens whose culture gets appropriated is not just the story of the benefit recording but that of jazz itself.

And yet it is too easy as a viewer to vilify Delmond. Beyond the local who leaves and sells out, Delmond is also representative of a musical artist who experimentally rejuvenates and thereby expands traditional jazz. Rather than revisiting an idealized past that never existed, this artist engages with a living and changing tradition, embracing contemporary jazz forms that are merging and changing and defying the static sense of an original and authentic music. In a way then Delmond is both more and less commodified: going where the money is, he also rejects the static repetition of what popular culture has defined as authentic New Orleans. So when he gets praised for having overcome New Orleans jazz, for forging his own way in contrast to the sellouts who play the same old tunes for ignorant tourists, he jumps to New Orleans’ defense. Telling his girl friend that “I get to say that. They don’t.” indicates both an identity position that allows him to criticize a place that remains his home but also suggests that he is aware that their easy dismissal is not the same as his complicated love/hate for the musical traditions that brought him to where he is now.

Likewise, Janette’s scene speaks to outside representation and its potentially harmful effects. The review not only trashes current cuisine in New Orleans but takes a cheap shot at its reputation in general: “I’m not certain the cuisine was ever as good as its reputation in part because the people who consumed, evaluated, and admired it likely weren’t sober enough at the time of ingestion to know what they were eating.” In response, Janette defends the food but also connects it to Katrina and its aftermath. Chefs are not just cooks–in her story, they become heroes. But that is clearly not something reviewers like Richman can understand or appreciate. Janette, who left the city and has given up on it for herself nevertheless won’t let others malign the city or its food.

These moments speak most strongly about the role the general perception and national coverage have played in regard to New Orleans and its slow recovery. Both Delmond and Janette struggle to negotiate their own conflicted emotions while nevertheless defending the city and its citizens to the last. And in the middle of the slow recovery that Season 2 sketches out, the opponents are not only the outsiders such as predatory Nelson Hidalgo, who won’t let a disaster go to waste, but also the somewhat condescending, ignorant, and uncaring outsiders who don’t get the city–and don’t want to.


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5 Responses to “ Minstrel Show in a Three-Day Stubble of a City ”

  1. Giada on May 4, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Good, interesting reading of the show’s new season.

  2. Kristina Busse on May 5, 2011 at 5:02 PM

    Thanks, Giada. I’m really excited where they are going this season and how the social critique will move outward.

  3. Christopher Cwynar on May 6, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    Great post, Kristina! I really like the way that you highlight Delmond and Janette for extended consideration. It seems to me that these exiled New Orleanians will be vital to this season’s action. The program now seems to be invested in really working with the dynamics produced by having outsiders in New Orleans and former residents of the city in other contexts.

    In this case, we can see Delmond beginning to feel the pull of the city’s heritage in a way that he didn’t seem to in the first season. One wonders whether he might eventually return to the city either through a physical relocation or through a reconnection with its musical culture. At the same time, Janette looks ill at ease in New York City. She looks anonymous in the factory-like kitchen where she works and her desultory figure seems to sink into the streets when she is outside of it. Yet, as you note, she is awakened for a brief moment by the critical evisceration of New Orleans’ cuisine. One wonders whether a return for Janette can be far off, particularly since she does not seem to be prepared to fully inhabit her New York City life.

    It seems to me that these two characters provide a means for the program to engage in an extended consideration of what New Orleans means to those who identify with it, those who know it only through tourism and its accumulated mythological weight, and the space in between these two positions. As I consider whether or not these two characters seem likely to return to NOLA, it occurs to me that it’s more likely that they will re-engage with the city through the outward embrace of its culture in New York City. For these two, along with other characters like Davis McAlary, it seems that a large part of living the city’s culture is sharing it with others, whether they be fellow natives or those for whom the city is merely a loose collection of images, be they of Katrina-related pain or Mardi Gras-related pleasure.

    • Kristina Busse on May 9, 2011 at 12:06 PM

      thanks Chris! I really like your last thought that sharing the culture is part of being from New Orleans. And it’s probably not incidental that food and music are the two things shared and exported, so to speak. Tulane Alumni parties, for example, tend to be Crawfish boils afaik all over the country–remembering NOLA is remembering the food, after all 🙂

      But I like the way you include Davis–he’s a weird native and tourist in his own town, isn’t he? The NOLA he embraces isn’t the one he came from and yet the two are connected and intertwined in interesting ways…

  4. vicki on May 25, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    It would seem that the NOLA ex-pats also make a significant part of the target audience nationally. Talk about a niche!