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Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines Hardcover – October 10, 2000

3.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Anna Deavere Smith, an actress and playwright in a category all her own, travels America in pursuit of authentic language, the kind that reveals the truth of a person, not just information. Once she finds that "personal music," she becomes the person through their verbal tics and idiosyncrasies, showcasing them in her critically acclaimed one-women plays. In 1995, Smith took her tape recorder to Washington, D.C., to capture the American presidency. But, she writes, "I knew that I knew nothing about the president, or any public figure for that matter, that the press didn't tell me. I would have to look at the press too." Over the course of five years, she interviewed Washington insiders (George Stephanopoulos, Marlin Fitzwater, David Kendall), members of the press (Ben Bradlee, Mike Wallace, Mike Isikoff), cultural critics (Ken Burns, Studs Terkel), and finally President Clinton himself. The book is a hybrid of transcripts of these interviews, vignettes of capitol politics, and ruminations on language, race relations, and inclusion; the parallel between the theatre and politics; and the potential for genuine human communication between politicians and the people.

"The language of Washington is in disrepair," Smith writes, "a verbal flat line," and though politicians have tried to learn from actors, they have failed so fully they can no longer connect with their audiences. The press comes in for an even stronger critique as a group that honors truth, but is busy looking for lies and creating a highly wired cocoon. The book's best and most startling moments are when her subjects "bust out" and surprise us, as when Clinton's former press secretary Mike McCurry says:

And we, we came very close in the last week to a point for, where I thought I was going to get asked about what kind of erections the president has. I mean quite seriously.... So it's a, it's weird. It's kind of this merging of our popular culture and tabloid mentality and the evening shows ... and it's kind of this morphing of what we consider, you know, civil discourse and ah so it's it's it's a troubling time.
While Smith tends to meander, interested perhaps in following her own authentic speech, she raises necessary questions and offers even more intriguing conclusions: there will never be real conversation between Washington and the rest of the nation until there's desegregation of the most insular community around--the capitol clique. --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

Catapulted to national prominence for her virtuosic one-woman show, Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992, actress and playwright Smith struck a nerve impersonating (based on her own interviews) scores of participants and bystanders in the 1992 riot following the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Here, she weighs in with fertile ruminations on her philosophy of acting, observations on the daily political theater in Washington, D.C., and outtakes from the interviews she conducted for House Arrest, the most recent installment in her ongoing series of plays "in search of the American character." Soon after she decided in 1995 to take the presidency as her next subject, she realized, "I knew nothing about the president... that the press didn't tell me." To get the whole story, Smith interviewed President Clinton and former presidents Bush and Carter, as well as high-ranking political insiders (including former press secretary Mike McCurry and labor secretary Alexis Herman), members of the press (Peggy Noonan, Ben Bradley) and assorted cultural commentators (filmmaker Ken Burns, scholar Judith Butler). The resulting performances in Los Angeles and New York faced mixed reviews; while provocative, the play was criticized for lacking the dramatic coherence of her previous work (it is currently in hiatus). Composed of a series of brief vignettes punctuated with edgy verbatim monologues by various Washington insiders, the book shows signs of similar organizing struggles. Though prone to tangents, Smith is at her most incisive when probing the abiding parallels between the theater and politics. Her fans will appreciate this behind-the-scenes view of her signature technique and her unique perspective on the intersection of art and politics. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (October 10, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375501509
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375501500
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #885,878 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book clearly deserves more than five stars, for creating the potential for much more real conversation, cooperation, and understanding in American life.
Professor Anna Deavere Smith, actor, teacher, and playwright, has written the first totally new book on listening that I have ever had the pleasure to savor. This book takes you past the words, past the mannerisms, past the rehearsals . . . into the heart of the person. Your life will never be the same after you commune with this extraordinary American journey.
"[Actors] speak to us because they are real in their effort to be together with a very large you, the you being all men and women."
"Politicians have tried to borrow these skills, and they have misused them and ended up speaking to very few."
The duality of those extremes frame the remarkable investigation of how we all relate to the American dream and political system. Ms. Smith uses many such contrasts to open your mind and illuminate what you have already grasped from a further distance away -- we're badly divided. For example, she shows how both prisoners and the guards are caught in a harmful net with one another. This sets the stage for pointing out the same thing is true of politicians and the press.
Her most revealing comments are about "life inside the Beltway" as Washington insiders like to describe themselves. By the way, that means that the rest of the world is merely "outside the Beltway," an afterthought. I had an experience in Washington once that reminded me of that. It was the day of the market crash (down 22 percent) in October 1987. I was with a group of government leaders. No one mentioned the stock market at all throughout the day, as people scrambled to call their offices during breaks.
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By A Customer on January 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I measured my time with _Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines_ I didn't want it to end. I was most fascinated with the text, composed of so many literary forms: the interview, the memoir, the editorial, the description. I liked filling in the gaps, to imagine why one piece followed another, why this interview or memory right here, rather than later or earlier. I was not so interested in the "Washington" stuff, but rather how a creative mind works. I enjoyed the journey from segregated Baltimore to the current jet set life of assistants and phones in rented spaces to 'do a job.' I read out loud the interview lines to 'hear' it as it might have been said and heard the 'trochees' myself! I felt invited to read between Deavere-Smith's lines and I'm sorry to have the book come to an end.
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Format: Hardcover
"Speaking calls for risk, speaking calls for a sense of what one has to lose. Not just what one has to gain. Speaking calls for heart."
The real gift in "Talk to Me" is Anna Deavere Smith's small revelations about her process as an actor, writer and director. Throughout my reading of the book I found myself scribbling down her observations of language and conversation/dialogue.
She centers the book on her journey to Washington D.C. to research a performance work on Thomas Jefferson. What happens in the book is what often happens to us as writers and creators: her initial intention is shifted by events and personal truths. What Smith discovers with the aid of her researchers, what she unexpectedly finds in D.C., reorients her path.
Smith is very honest about her D.C. experiences in relation to race, reflecting on her own segregated childhood. Some may be uncomfortable with these realities and her upfront honesty as a black actor who did not get work in the theater for many years (because she wasn't "black enough" to play a black woman or "white enough" to play a white woman - this, before she began writing and directing her own works).
"Acting, the study of the authentic, puts a high premium on vulnerability. When there is vulnerability there is a greater possibility that something will actually happen."
In the end, this book really is about language and performance. I found it to be useful in my work in the theater and I recommend it to anyone interested in the creative process or interpersonal communications.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Anna Deavere Smith promises a lot to the readers of "Talk to Me." She delivers very little. Her insights and conclusions are one-liners that could barely fill a page of print -- there is no amplification, no explanation, no theory applied or proposed for application elsewhere. The book is mostly a disjointed journal, interrupted by disjointed quotations and commentaries, and given ersatz gravitas through strained historical analogies, borrowed expertise, and insider quips.
Don't believe the liner notes. If you are looking for insights about the American presidency, or "the relationship of the press to the presidency," look elsewhere. If you hoped to better understand the relationship of the arts to American culture, or the struggles of minorities and women to America's identity crisis, you will be disappointed.
The book's subtitle is "Listening Between the Lines," but the author gives us no clue how to do that, beyond a confusing suggestion to look for "trochees." If "Talk to Me" has any useful substance, it must also be "between the lines," because it surely is not in the text. In her theater performances, Ms. Smith may very well help the audience find the soul and character of America through its words. But, this book shows how poorly the transcribed word [especially mere snippets from lengthy conversations] can capture a person's spirit, much less an institution's or a profession's.
The combination of talent and magic and connection that makes Ms. Smith's techniques work in the theater simply cannot be transfered to the printed page -- at least, has not been in this book.
I can't imagine who might find this book worth the time and effort.
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