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'Treme': Love at first sight with Big Chief Lambreaux

April 19, 2010 |  6:00 am

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Two episodes into the HBO drama “Treme”, and the first strands of narrative are starting to reveal themselves. We’re getting a sense of character, witnessing the sprout of personalities and plot lines: Antoine Batiste has a lot of baby mamas, and he’s not too good to either the babies or their mamas. One of the latter, Ladonna Batiste Williams (Khandi Alexander), is being pulled away from New Orleans by her now-husband, living in Baton Rouge with her two sons while she tends bars and searches for her brother, apparently lost within the Louisiana prison system. 

Can Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) ever be able to keep a job and avoid borrowing money from his – it seems -- rich parents? How will series creators Simon and Overmyer harness Creighton Bernette’s rage at the government, and will actor John Goodman’s heart be able to handle it?

But with all this creation going on, we’ve got one particular character, Big Chief Lambreaux, on the brain.

We can’t stop thinking about him. The first episode’s climax was the Chief’s incredible Indian dance, a cocksure, strutting ceremony in a darkened neighborhood. All of a sudden, Lambreaux, who we first met in a car headed back to New Orleans after three months away and who looked to be nothing more than a stubborn burden on his son and daughter, is this otherworldly figure whose character contains multitudes. As we are beginning to learn, his reputation precedes him, and, like a king returning from a period of exile, is known by name if not by face as he roams the city gathering up his scattered tribe.

It’s already obvious that this will be the first of many posts on Big Chief Lambreaux, and not just because his name is so fun to say. It’s clear that Simon and Overmyer and company are establishing him as a character to behold, someone who’ll be getting choice pearls of dialog and a major storyline.

He tossed off a classic line last night. When arguing on the advantages of old plaster to new Sheetrock, Lambreaux spit venom at the realities of New Orleans: “People do a lot of dumb [expletive] because it’s easier.” When he visited some housing projects while looking for a club member, he finds the still-majestic buildings all boarded up, but looking untainted by Katrina. When someone steals his tools, he puts word out on the street and they are returned to him by a humbled and apologetic galoot, who is forced to not only to eat the $250 he paid for the Chief’s stolen tools, but who also rats out the thief.

Chief Lambreaux, as played by Clarke Peters, has the same calm, steely gaze as his character Det. Lester Freamon in "The Wire." Freamon lived on the straight and narrow, was a voice of determined morality amidst the grey areas of the Baltimore PD. Unlike Freamon, who gradually became a central character after living in the shadows during Season One, Peters’ Lambreaux is being given a lot of screen time from the start, and it’s looking to be an exciting prospect. 

What we know at this point is that he’s suspicious of his son’s New York jazz, that his trumpet-playing son Delmond's path to respect is forged when he tells his father he has a local gig with New Orleans songwriting and production legend Allen Toussaint:

“Touissant? You deigning to play local?,” said Lambreaux with a mix of surprise and respect, before asking his son, “Can you swing? Not all you modern jazz cats can, you know.” Here’s a man who’s protective of his culture, from its music to its cypress support beams and plaster walls, who understands the essence of the New Orleans spirit.

And then the chief goes and does something that Peters’ character in "The Wire" would never do: beats and bludgeons a tool thief, leaves the so-called “copper miner” -- who  Lambreaux finds yanking the wiring out of an empty building -- lying in a pool of blood. It was a shocking way to establish the character of Lambreaux, one that aims him on a potentially wild trajectory. Did Big Chief just pull a Tony Soprano? Is the Don also a madman?

Who knows? But he sure can conjure the spirits. The final, masterful scene shows him, tambourine in hand, making it pop like a shotgun, chanting, ringing, summoning … something.

--- Randall Roberts

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