Khandi Alexander :: on ’Treme’, New Orleans and her Gay Pride mishap

by Jim Halterman

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday June 2, 2010

Three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans does not necessarily sound like a natural recipe for a television series but leave it to writer/producer David Simon, who created the critically lauded dramas The Wire and The Corner, to tackle the subject matter and come with the fascinating HBO series, Treme. Named after a neighborhood in New Orleans, Treme focuses on the New Orleans community struggling to get their lives back together after the natural disaster.

With a stellar cast including Wendell Pierce, John Goodman, Steve Zahn, Kim Dickens and Melissa Leo, one name that has garnered early Emmy buzz is actress/singer Khandi Alexander. Alexander, best known for her TV work on such series as NewsRadio and CSI:Miami, plays LaDonna Batiste-Williams, a bar owner and separated wife of Wendell Pierce's character. The show's first season concludes on Sunday, June 20, 2010 and has been renewed for a second season that will air in 2011.

Alexander also has a long-standing commitment to LGBT causes that had its roots in her family relationships. "My family had openly gay members in it from as far back as I can remember," she told the LA-based newspaper WeHo News in 2005. "We just loved each other. I never knew prejudice against race, religion, or sexual preference. We were all about Love."

She had her start on Broadway after being discovered by Bob Fosse and appearing in two of his seminal 1970 shows - Dancin' and Chicago (the original production). From Broadway she toured the world with Whitney Houston, but never forgot her Broadway roots and the gay men she met there, many of whom were to die from HIV in the 1980s.

Since then she has been involved in numerous fundraisers for HIV-related organizations, as well as to support LGBT groups, such as Los Angeles' Jeff Griffith Youth Center. In 2005 she was awarded by the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, and by the West Hollywood City Council with a Rainbow Key Award. Also, Christopher Street West recognized her for her gay activism as a straight woman.

EDGE's Jim Halterman talked to Alexander about the role, when we'll also see her onstage again as well as a mishap during a past Gay Pride parade that had Alexander laughing all over again in the retelling.

Always drama!

EDGE: How did the role of LaDonna come to you?

Khandi Alexander: I worked with David Simon about ten years ago on his piece The Corner for HBO and the woman whose life I played in The Corner, Fran Boyd, have been friends all this time and I love her. She’s like a sister to me. When I left CSI Miami I didn’t tell anyone and the show aired on Monday night and on Tuesday she called me that she heard I left the show. She said ’I know you left the show because you’re getting ready to work with David Simon.’ I said ’No, I just wanted to shake things up a little bit and spread my wings.’ She said ’Oh my goodness, I just called David and told him you were going to work with him.’ I said, ’Give me David’s number!’ I hadn’t talked to him in quite some time and I called and said ’David, I didn’t leave the show for any particular reason. I just left to explore the possibilities.’ He called me back because he said ’I have this role and if you’d like it, I’ll send you the script.’ It was just one of those meant-to-be things. I said, ’You don’t even have to send it. I’ll do it.’

EDGE: The ensemble is so great. You’re in good company!

KA: I’m so excited to be with these actors! It’s so cool. Unbelievably cool to work with these actors. It’s everything that I was hoping for and more.

EDGE: That first scene in the first episode with Wendell Pierce in the bar. You see so much in how you look at him and you can tell there’s a lot of drama with these two!

KA: Always the drama! You know it’s coming!

EDGE: One thing I’ve noticed about the show is that despite the dour state of things there is a real layer of hope. Did that attract you to the part, too?

KA: Actually, I would have done anything David was doing for the chance to work with him again because I think he’s so gifted. The fact that it was a post-Katrina story was the icing on the cake for me. Also, it was a story of these people and their emotional lives and getting to the other side. That was important to me. Also, from the musician’s point of view, you rarely see anything that goes behind the scenes with them. The way musicians and music is used in the show... I just loved all of it.

Katrina still resonates

EDGE: I can’t imagine Treme being on one of the broadcast networks. Do you agree?

KA: I think that’s absolutely accurate and I’m so grateful for HBO. They take the chances and actors are willing to go with them!

EDGE: Katrina still resonates with the whole world and how we’re all rebuilding in a way. What do you think the show is saying to us?

KA: I think the most important thing is to remember. It’s so funny. We have all these forms of communication now and we all have a little ADD and it’s important to remember that it actually happened here in this country and people fought for their culture, they fought for their way of life, fought for their dignity and they won but it was really brutal and it was very hard. It’s really kind of scary but shows the resilience and the hope and here we are in 2010 and now we have the magic of the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl! All the biggest film productions here. There are six or seven movies shooting in New Orleans right now so it’s amazing to be here at this time and to see so much being put into the economy and into the spirit. I can’t explain to you. It’s very magical to be here right now. It’s a rebirth.

EDGE: You mentioned the musicians in the show and I really find the music to be so inspiring and how it weaves through the story.

KA: I’ve never seen anything like that before in television. It’s very cinematic, which I love. The city and the music are their own characters and I love that the creators expect their audience to be intelligent enough to hear an entire song played like they did in the pilot. That is something you rarely have the opportunity to experience on a television series. Mind you, I saw it for the first time when everyone else saw it. I don’t watch dailies so it’s new to me as well. I’m just going along with the journey with the audience.

EDGE: What has music meant to you in your life? Has it helped you through those low times that we all have?

KA: Always! You know how you have your certain music when you just have to have that good cry? You have to get out of bed and you have to hit that treadmill and so you put on that big hair band rock music. You hit that treadmill and do what you’ve gotta do!

EDGE: And you’re also getting a lot of early Emmy buzz already. How does that feel?

KA: I can’t believe it! But I’m really glad I’m in New Orleans. I’m in my bubble here. It’s been great speaking to people but we’re in Katrina, baby.

EDGE: And you’ve always been very supportive of the gay and lesbian community even being in the Gay Pride parade in West Hollywood, right?

KA: Throughout my entire career the gay and lesbian community has always been supportive of me, especially the friends who I started my career with. You know, all my boys in the chorus. I love you guys! 100%, baby! When they asked me to be in the Gay Pride parade a couple of years ago, I brought my friend, Michael and we were sitting on the back of the convertible and we’re waving at people and it’s going down Santa Monica Boulevard. The car was going maybe 3 miles per hour and we hit somebody! [laughs] We literally hit somebody and stopped the parade cold. Bruce Vilanch was behind us and everyone was yelling! Now how do you hit someone going 3 miles per hour?

EDGE: Maybe drag queen busy posing for the audience!?

KA: I’m not saying! I’m not saying [laughs] Let’s just say it was my car that held up the parade and I’m sorry.


Treme airs this Sundays at 10pm et/pt on HBO with multiple re-airings throughout the week, as well as through the On Demand feature. It concludes its first season on June 20, 2010.

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.