By Lolis Eric Elie
For fans of ‘The Wire,’ Clarke Peters will always be Lester Freamon, the brilliant investigator who was rescued from the bowels of the Baltimore Police Department when his skills were needed in the Avon Barksdale investigation. American audiences can be forgiven for not being more familiar with his work before that show. Though he grew up in New Jersey, he has spent most of his career working in Europe doing everything from busking on the streets of Paris to playing a variety of roles on the stages of London’s West End. Clarke’s multiple facets include his work as a painter, singer, songwriter and a Tony Award nominee for writing the book for the revue ‘Five Guys Named Moe.’
Clarke was introspective during our talk and even referred to himself in the third person a couple of times. We started off talking about what appealed to him about playing Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, his character on ‘Treme.’ The conversation went a lot of other places, but the other excerpt I couldn’t help but include here is the one about his encounters with James Baldwin.
First of all it was just a job and I was looking for a job. David Simon told me to really take a look at the Mardi Gras Indian tradition because he didn't know all that much about it. It was really difficult to put a finger on it. It just opened up a really exciting world and two things happened: One was recognizing my ignorance in my own culture and the need to know more. And the other side of it was seeing this beautiful pageantry that these brothers have been holding onto for generations.
New Orleans is a place where, if you believe in the ancestors, they are here. If you have any sense of spirituality in any way shape or form, regardless of whether it's African or Celtic or Native American, there is something about the energy here that allows, that facilitates the communication with this energy.
So playing Lambreaux is wonderful. It also is an opportunity for Clarke to be able to express things that have been deep inside him for decades concerning identity and who we are as black people and why the rest of the world thinks we are failing. For me, Lambreaux embodies a cat who says, “We ain't failing.” For me, when the Indians say, "No um bow [won’t bow down],” that's how Clarke feels because I don't know how to go there.
Clarke learned three chords on the guitar. That was enough for him to earn a little money singing and playing in Paris, waiting for a more substantial opportunity to develop. It did, and James Baldwin was there at just the right time to facilitate it.
I knew Jimmy Baldwin through meeting him my very first day in Paris through my older brother, Tony. Later, I got this job in Geneva at the Royal Theater of Geneva, they were doing a version of “Showboat." Débria Brown, who is from here and who was an opera singer, was the lead character in this.
I had to get my own car fare, so I was busking to get it. I got all these centimes and francs--pennies basically--and I was counting them in the basement of Cafe de Busi. And I looked up and there was Jimmy Baldwin and he was talking with his driver, Ray Frost at the time, and he saw me counting these coins and said, like he did with most of us, "Bambino. What’s going on?" I told him I was trying to get some carfare to go to Geneva and do a show. I didn't want to tell him I was going to do "Showboat." That's not the kind of thing you volunteer to somebody.
So it comes out that that’s what I was doing. He didn't even blink. He said, “How much you got?” He said, “Have you thought about what you will need when you get there?” I said, “Well, they're going to give me expenses when I get there.” He said, “Well have you thought about what happens before they give you expenses?” I said, “I hadn't thought about that.” He said, “All right. Here's 300 francs.” I said, "Mr. Baldwin…" He said, “Just take it.” I said, "Mr. Baldwin, I promise you're going to get this back. I’ve borrowed money from my mother, my father, my brother, my uncle and I promised I was going to give it back. And I know I haven't. But you are going to get your money back. I promise you. I just need to know where to send it.” I couldn’t believe he was giving me this money.
I was reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" at the time. And he put his name in the back and his address. And I indeed got to Geneva, got my first check and sent him his money. That was 1973. I didn't see Jimmy again until sometime in the 80s. We were doing “The Amen Corner," and Jimmy showed up and I knew he sort of recognized me, but sort of didn't. After he talked to the company and the rest of the cast, I took a moment and I approached him and I said, “I used to busk in Paris and you knew my brother Tony. And he was looking at me, pretending he knew who I was. And I said, “And you loaned me money to go to my first gig outside of Paris.” And he still didn't get it. And I said, “I promised you I was going to pay that money back. He said, “Did you?” I said, “Of course I paid you that money back. You wrote your name and address in the back of my book.”
He said "The Count of Monte Cristo." That's what rang the bell. I didn't even tell him the name of the book.
Have these European experiences contributed to the work you’re doing now on “Treme”?
My experiences outside of America have shown me how important our culture is around the world, regardless of whether or not it is being valued here. The African Americans that settled outside of America, whether they lived in Paris, Amsterdam, Dusseldorf or wherever, have left an impression that is even palpable in the arts today. And in a few instances the Africans Americans I have met in Europe have pointed me back to New Orleans.
I didn’t know what a party was until I met [New Orleans born opera singer], Debria Brown. Debria knew how to party! She and Sylvia Kuumba Williams and Vernell Bagneris introduced me to African American culture of the early 1900s in the entertainment industry through the show “One Mo’ Time.” When I came to New Orleans to play Lambreaux, it was like all of that came full circle.