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.)
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