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On HBO's 'Treme,' Robin Givhan finds an extraordinary woman in ordinary clothes

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; E01

The fascinating thing about actress Khandi Alexander is that she can be simultaneously hard and soft, which is perhaps why she is able to play such a compelling character on the HBO series "Treme."

Her portrayal of LaDonna Batiste-Williams is full of the nuances and subtle brushstrokes that define people in the real world. She moves gracefully when at the helm of her New Orleans dive joint with its Katrina-damaged roof. She pops open beer bottles, spins around to pour drinks and slides plates of food -- red beans, it looked like in one episode -- across the bar and over to her ex-husband, a lovable lout of a trombone player by the name of Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce).

In the deep shadows of Gigi's bar, she comes across like a queen presiding over her empire. She evokes all the strength that traditionally has been attached to black women, particularly when they are portrayed in popular culture, and so much more. One instinctively senses that LaDonna should not be messed with in her domain. As easily as she jokes and reminisces with Antoine about their shared history and the city's seductive music -- which was always the destructive third wheel in their relationship -- she can pivot quickly into offense or defense. An emotional wall goes up, and she fires off cutting truths from behind that protective cover.

Yet even when mostly hidden behind the bar, LaDonna has a swagger that suggests streetwise elegance. Yes, there is such a thing.

When we think of the street, popular culture has trained us to envision crude thuggery, disheveled anger and beaten-down melancholy. These are the lifeblood of the "Law & Order" franchise and countless other cop dramas. But that's a simplified truth. LaDonna is more complicated and thus a thousand times more intriguing. In her nondescript T-shirts and jeans, she exudes unforced sexiness and strength. She is a glorious-looking woman whose body has not succumbed to the physical toll of fighting her way up from disadvantaged circumstances. She has not consoled herself with excessive calories, nor has she aged prematurely through stress, worry or any other psychic toxin. LaDonna is flawed and damaged; she is not down and out. Indeed, she would clean up quite nicely. She's a woman who makes sure there's a whiff of joy in her day.

It is also clear that LaDonna isn't particularly young. She has teenage sons and a gray-haired mother. LaDonna has a sturdiness built from life experiences. She doesn't try to use her considerable good looks to sway her trifling roofer to get on with the job of repairing the bar. Certainly, no one would blame her if she did. Her frustration jumps off the screen; vulnerability, too, when she glares up at the flapping blue tarp that half-heartedly covers the holes where the shingles are missing. Instead, LaDonna files a lawsuit.

She doesn't seem to recognize how pretty she is because she is too busy with the urgencies of life: her struggling bar, her long-distance relationship with her husband and children, who have moved to Baton Rouge, and her tedious search for a younger brother who was in the custody of the New Orleans police when the flooding began and has since gone missing. With every roadblock thrown up as she looks for him, her face screws up in an expression of anger, sorrow, confusion and remorse. So much emotion communicated in a flash.

LaDonna is one of those rare female television characters whose personality is wholly created from within. Her wardrobe is virtually invisible -- although not unimportant. She looks regular. She has been given the gift of costuming that serves only as a quiet backdrop to her character's story. Often, when visual storytellers aim to dress a female character in a low-key manner, they cannot resist the temptation -- or the demand -- to make sure that the jeans are excessively low-rise or the T-shirts show just a little too much cleavage. The clothes become a plot point: woman as defined by tank top.

LaDonna, however, is dressed like a man. That's not to say that she looks masculine. Not at all. But she is dressed in a way that takes the topic of her clothes off the table. No one really notices what Antoine is wearing; he's just a man with a trombone and a frayed dignity who exists in a constant state of horniness. LaDonna is a woman who looks like she wears only what she has salvaged, what she has managed to stuff into a suitcase. One sees a few stray clues -- the green suede jacket, the platform sandals, the hoop earrings, the manicured nails -- that perhaps, before the flood, fashion was on her radar, was a part of her life.

And, of course, there's her hair. It's a bouncing, swinging bob that always looks salon fresh. No one else's hair looks as finely turned out. How did the hairstylists manage to get back in business so soon after the flood? Or did LaDonna survive with the keys to Gigi's in one hand and a flat iron in the other? Her hair serves as a fine symbol of her sense of herself -- a controlled and self-aware woman. She is not narcissistic. Her hair isn't about beauty, but rather, pride.

Sometimes she pulls her bob back with a hair band. That's her workday style, when she delivers her most cutting glances and her mouth is set in stern lines. At other times, she lets her hair blow free, like when she's marching in a New Orleans parade -- part of the "second line," they call it -- and she looks happy and relaxed.

Viewers also see her at home, with her hair tied up -- is this how she keeps it so smooth? LaDonna is serving breakfast to her mother, and her worry is palpable. She subtly tries to persuade her mother to go to Baton Rouge, where the daughter will not have to worry about her. But her mother resists, and LaDonna shoves a plate of eggs toward her across the kitchen table. The move expresses impudence more than anger. LaDonna would not disrespect her mother with wholesale lashing out.

Alexander has been onscreen before in memorable roles. She was a rough-hewn, drug-addicted mother in "The Corner" and a glamorous medical examiner on "CSI: Miami." And before then she made a mark in TV land with recurring roles on "ER" and other shows. But "Treme" seems different.

Perhaps it's because she's surrounded by so many other actresses whose characters are equally complicated -- both flawed and admirable. Melissa Leo plays a lawyer whose frustration and resignation over the legal system flash across her face more often than any suggestion of righteous indignation. Kim Dickens portrays the owner and chef of a restaurant favored by foodies who's struggling to keep her business afloat and herself from despair. And Lucia Micarelli is a street violinist with dazzling skills and a Mona Lisa smile.

Who these women will turn out to be is one of the most exciting aspects of "Treme." But none of their characters has, so far, unfolded like LaDonna: so real, so regular and so extraordinary.

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