Celebration Speaker: Wendell Pierce

Alumnus Wendell Pierce returned to NOCCA on May 14, 2009 to give the commencment address at Celebration. Below are excerpts from his remarks.

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Tonight is a profoundly  special night – a celebration of your hard work and accomplishments. It is a celebration of family. Look around and share this moment — for nothing counts so much as family. They are a connection to your past and the most likely to help you in the future. It is a celebration of character and integrity, passion and spirit, focus and fear, hurt  and tears, skill, hope and faith. We are here to celebrate you as artists.

It’s especially nice to come back home to a place that meant so much in my life.  A place that nurtured me, challenged me, and sent me out on a journey that I enjoy to this day. A place I remember with great love and fondness. The New Orleans Center For Creative Arts. In a moment, it will become the same for you.

This commencement, this beginning, has come as a result of your dedication to discipline, hard work, persistence, and setting goals in life – then doing what is necessary to achieve them. Hold on to that commitment as you move forward because at times in life it will seem to be all you have. But know you will never be alone. What thoughts are to the individual, art is to the community. It is the place where we reflect on our lives together: our hopes and dreams, our past and future, our strengths and failures, where we have come from and where we hope to go.

In America the role of art is not clearly explained. While it can be enchanting, moving, and entertaining, art goes beyond performance.  It is pragmatic.  It is the greatest forum we have for policy discussion. And it is the essence of life itself.

We know this all too well after the last four years in New Orleans. It was art that expressed our pain and loss.  Most of you began at NOCCA in the midst of a disaster I would not wish on my worst enemy. But for you to come back here, engage in your craft and contribute your time and energy towards a hopeful future has been vital to our recovery. It demonstrates a poetic truth that will far outlast the painful memory. We are a people good at heart and strong of will. Many might try to define your time here by that tragedy, but what is evident tonight is that these years have already been defined by your accomplishments.

You also graduate with a generation that is challenged in ways that have not been seen in this country for decades. Meet that challenge with your work. It is at times like these that artist have the greatest opportunity to move people to action and impact lives.  It is Woody Guthrie’s folk music during the depression – “This land is your land, this land is my land.” It is the words of a quiet poet, Lech Walesa, that moved a nation to solidarity. And none of us will forget the first time we heard “Pops” Louis  Armstrong sing “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” after the levees broke.

The pursuit of exellence is the American way of life, so in your pursuit of fame and fortune, let it be driven with purpose and innovation. Never become complacent.  Let passion guide your heart. For those of you who will NOT pursue a life in the arts, tonight might be an even greater triumph. You have avoided living a life of regret asking “I wonder what would have happened if I had tried? For what is certain is that you have prepared yourself for an infinite number of possibilities.

Your presence here tonight speaks to an understanding of what a good friend of mine says: “we got to step up our game.”  We all must work a little harder, dig a little deeper, forgive a little quicker, reach out a little further, walk a little taller, find a little more compassion, and yes, love each other a little more easily. The key is to work hard at whatever it is you choose do.  And work especially hard at the things you don’t like or that don’t come easily.  It will benefit you in ways you cannot imagine. (Wendell Pierce is an actor, director and producer in theatre, television and film, as well as a community developer.  He starred in HBO’s The Wire and currently is starring in Treme.)

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