Music Credit: “History of an Apology” written and performed by Paul Rucker, from the album, History of an Apology.
Dion Graham: The man had a bandage around his leg where his pants had been ripped. Blood soaked it red. “Help,” he croaked out. “Please, help me!” T'challa took another wary step. He didn’t know who the man was but his father always said it was his duty to help those in trouble. A rustling in the bushes made them both pause. Embaco startled, “what was that?” T'challa didn’t have time to answer, as four figures stepped through the trees.
Music Credit: “History of an Apology” composed and performed by Paul Rucker from the album History of an Apology
Jo Reed: That’s Dion Graham narrating Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald Smith and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
As an audiobook narrator, Dion Graham is the man of a thousand voices—all of them guiding listeners through stories both complicated and simple. From a 19th century man narrating his escape from slavery to a monster in Dave Egger’s, Wild Things. Dion is the voice that explains the ideas of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and leads you through the shoals of poverty uncovered in Matthew Desmond’s book in Evicted; He’s narrated many biographies and autobiographies including; Miles Davis, Barack Obama and Mohammed Ali. And he’s read Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He’s a laid-back detective and a predatory alien. An aural shape shifter, Dion Graham has won literally scores of awards for his audio work.
But while audiobook narration is a big part of his resume, it is only part. Dion Graham has to be one of America’s hardest-working actors—you’ve seen him on television in programs like “Law and Order” “Madame Secretary” and “The Wire.” He is a well-regarded presence on New York and regional theater stages, performing the work of playwrights such as August Wilson, Marcus Gradley, and William Shakespeare. He operates at the sweet spot of acting—well-known and highly regarded within the business. As someone who listens to audiobooks, I know some of the many voices of Dion Graham, but when I spoke with Dion: I began where he began with the theater.
Jo Reed: You’ve done and still do a lot of stage work.
Dion Graham: Yeah, definitely.
Jo Reed: What was your first play?
Dion Graham: My first play <laughs>
Jo Reed: Professional job.
Dion Graham: Well. I’m going to answer this two ways. As a kid, I was mixed in with kids and some college students at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. It was called the Mini-Mummers and a woman named Kay King ran that; in fact, Sarah Jessica Parker was a part of that as well as some other people. And anyway we did this production called “I Sincerely Doubt This Old House is Very Haunted” <laughs> and I think I was a hobgoblin or something like that. I’m sure I didn’t get paid for that--I’m sure I was probably in sixth grade or something like that-- but the first thing that I can remember getting paid for-- the first play that I got paid for was a play called Mr. Roberts.
Jo Reed: Oh, my goodness.
Dion Graham: Yeah, exactly. I was in college I hadn’t gotten cast in the big production, which I think was Cherry Orchard, and so it seemed like I was going to have a lot of time on my hands and I wanted to act, and I saw this notice in the local paper for casting for Mr. Roberts at La Comedia Dinner Theatre and I drove the 40 minutes or whatever it was and I auditioned and I got it and I got paid I think the princely sum of $200 a week or something like that.
Jo Reed: Hey, that’s not bad.
Dion Graham: No; I was happy to get it.
Jo Reed: You have acted in so many plays. That I’m really just going to focus on three or four. Let’s start with August Wilson’s Jitney. You performed Jitney in your hometown of Cincinnati—which had to be a happy experience for you.
Dion Graham: It was a dream in all the best ways. We had a fantastic company-- It was in Cincinnati early in my career I was asked to come and do a couple shows there. I think I was asked first to come do Equus and then Much Ado About Nothing and then Call it the Museum. So it’s been all this time that I haven’t come back to do anything and the director, Timothy Douglas, who’s a friend and a tremendous artist, asked me to come do it. I was happy to come do it and the cherry on top was that it was home-- in my hometown and where people who-- oftentimes don’t get to see me do things live. They’ve seen plenty of stuff on TV and in film but they hardly get to see me do things live so that was a real treat. And this particular production was I like to say it was special and rare; I would call it the XO <laughs> of experiences and it’s a production that I wish everyone could have seen because we pretty much levitated nightly on that stage and it was really great. August’s words are deep and funny and full of life and they just have a lot to say about the African American experience and the African American psyche and in relief, the American experience and I’m sure it can speak to the human experience as well. In fact, that’s the whole point. And then I did August Wilson’s Fences years ago too earlier in my career playing Cory and recently I was up for Troy in a production of it so I guess things have come full circle.
Jo Reed: Another play I just want to touch upon is On the Levee.
Dion Graham: Oh, yeah. That was a devastating piece about the 1927 flood in Greenville, Mississippi. I was struck as we were working on it to find out that when the boats came to evacuate the people from town that they did not evacuate the black people so lots of lives were lost. A very, very deep piece. I played a guy named Joe who was the bootblack to Mr. Percy who was sort of the master of this-- you’d have to call it a plantation. And even though this was not during slavery time still it certainly was a plantation with a big house. And he was the bootblack and one of those people that you would find really, really distasteful to be around, but in fact, all that was ruse to make sure his son got an opportunity to be out of there.
Jo Reed: Yes, what a sad, true story that’s been so many people.
Dion Graham: True, and by the way let me just say that -- that was written by a great writer named Marcus Gardley who is just -- he’s fantastic and he’s also a very poetic writer.
Jo Reed: You were in the world premiere of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill directed by Ethan McSweeny that ran at Arena Stage. That was Grisham’s first novel which he adapted it into a play.
Dion Graham: Now, Ethan has done a lot of D.C. as you know and we had some really great and interesting artistic experiences together and certainly putting together A Time to Kill was really interesting. The script was very much in flux ‘cause it was a new script and it was very much in development and I think it still had a little ways to go by the time we finished our run, but I was struck by how moved people were at the end of the evening and moved by the experience of Carl Lee who I played in it.
Jo Reed: And just briefly, Carl Lee whose ten year old daughter was raped and beaten by two white supremacists and he took justice into his own hands and the play mostly centers on his trial.
Dion Graham: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate, Jo. I’ve been fortunate to have some really great experiences and really rich experiences. It makes me think about this world premiere of a Tennessee Williams play-- a lost Tennessee Williams play that I did in London at the National-- at the Royal National Theatre. Vanessa Redgrave had found-- she’d been searching for it and she found this play, “Not About Nightingales,” and gave it to Trevor Nunn and we brought over about-- I think about five Americans and so we had an Anglo-American cast. We played at the Cottesloe, at the National, which was-- <laughs> what can I tell you-- it was just an incredible experience because it’s not often that American actors get to work on those stages, the premier theater in the English-speaking world. And so we did that for about six months and then we came back and did it here on Broadway as well.
Jo Reed: Tell me about The Wire and you worked on The Wire for a couple of seasons. You played state's attorney Rupert Bond.
Dion Graham: Yep, season four and season five. That was another incredible experience with some really good people. And I have to say, it was also great because I got to work with friends of mine. So the guy I played, Rupert Bond, who was the state's attorney, was prosecuting rather famously this crooked senator Clay Davis on there played by my friend Isaiah Whitlock. So we had a good time doing that and, look, The Wire was an incredible ride. I was really glad to be a part of that.
Jo Reed: In terms of acting, TV is fabulous. The Wire was wonderful but we know for every three minutes you're on the screen there are fifteen hours of waiting around.
Dion Graham: Yeah, sometimes there's a lot of hurry up and wait. That's true.
Jo Reed: That's very different, I would think, from audiobooks, the process.
Dion Graham: Oh, yeah. In audio land, it's happening right now, in a way how it is when I'm onstage. It’s immediate. I think of it as flinging myself off the cliff, if you will. And books are different so books call out to be told differently. But I do try to jump off the cliff with it. But in audio-land, I can go back and I do often times go back to fix things or if something hits me that I think can be better or I understand something better. I definitely will go back and capture that.
Jo Reed: Now, how did you begin to narrate audiobooks?
Dion Graham: Well, when I was in London doing Not About Nightingales I met a friend of a friend who lives part-time in London and lives part-time in New York; he’s an actor and actually, I’m going to big-up him right now that he’s an actor, his name is Steven Crossley. You know, I asked him-- it sounded great. It sounded like a really interesting and fun experience and I asked him to make an introduction when we got back to New York and so sometime later he did and that’s how the ball got rolling eventually, and I had no idea that I would fall in love with that aspect of my career as well and I also had no idea that so many people would appreciate my narrations too so I feel triply blessed.
Jo Reed: Tell me how you choose what books to narrate because you have a busy career. You’re on stage; you’re on television; you do audiobooks.
Dion Graham: I have to say that I get a lot of really interesting offers. That will go a long way <laughs> if the book is good and it’s interesting. Sometimes there are certain books that I-- depending on what else is going on that I have to turn down sometimes if it’s one that I can’t-- either can’t accommodate in my schedule or one that’s not up to snuff enough that I can spend my time on it at that time. But Jo, I get overwhelmingly a lot of great, interesting offers. There’s a book that I finished recently called American Histories by John Edgar Wideman-- which is a collection of-- I hesitate to call them short stories because they are all connected but it’s a really deep piece of work. And I was told by the producers--the publishers that they had been looking for something to present me with, and this book requires a lot-- it’s multidimensional; there are all kinds of things going on in it. And I jokingly said to them-- I said-- after I read it I said, “its fantastic and thank you so much. I just want to say I just want you to know that every time you want to find a book for me you don’t have to find one that requires me to bend time and space. <laughs>
Jo Reed: And that book is coming out in mid-march. What’s your preparation before you narrate a book?
Dion Graham: Well, I read the book.
Jo Reed: Good beginning
Dion Graham: Yeah, exactly. I try not to overthink anything. I just try to read the book. I love to read. Here’s the thing about audiobooks, about narrating audiobooks. It is the delightfully delicious marriage for me of two things that I love. One, reading. Two, acting. There’s a funny story. Oh, I think I was a junior in high school. My father had some chores that he wanted me to do and I was like, “yeah, I’ll get to it.” And I remember famously my dad said, “You know, all you want to do is a little reading and a little acting.” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, that pretty much it.” So, I’m kinda like Pooh in the honeypot.
Jo Reed: Let’s hear an excerpt of Dion narrating Dave Edgar’s book, The Circle.
<Excerpt Dion Graham narrating The Circle>
Jo Reed: Believe it or not that was Dion Graham. Dion you are a shape shifter.
Dion Graham: Thanks, Jo.
Jo Reed: You narrate all of Dion’s books don’t you?
Dion Graham: Not quite all. I narrate most of Dave’s stuff. Yeah, Dave and I have been a really great collaboration and we certainly know each other a little bit at this point too. And I was out in the Bay a couple years ago after we had done What is the What and we were in the car and Dave said, "So, I don't know if you know but I hear that most people come to the book through your narration of it. And they are really knocked out and moved." And I was like, "Oh, thanks so much, David." He's like, "Yeah, so will you do all of them?" So, and The Monk of Mocha just came out, which, of course, you probably know about.
Jo Reed: And The Monk of Mocha is Edgar’s most recent work.
Dion Graham: Yep
Jo Reed: For a long time you’ve been committed to what you call you’re African themed work—and you developed a wide range of African accents.
Dion Graham: Yes, I do. There have been a number of books -- they’ve either been about African-themed work or there’s been a prominent African character in it so those and of course African-American work and I’m also glad to say that I get to do literature that-- in which it’s not just about African Americans or it’s about something else entirely. But I’ve gotten to do some African dialects and I’ve spent some time in Africa as well, in East Africa and in West Africa. In terms of the African-themed work yeah, there have been quite a few, What is the What by Dave Eggers, Radiance of Tomorrow,” Ishmael Beah’s great book, his first novel actually; he- he’s the guy who wrote A Long Way Gone, which was kind of his memoir actually. There’s a great book that I love which is so haunting “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Menjentsu.
Jo Reed: I love that book. That’s actually an NEA Big Read book.
Dion Graham: Really fantastic, haunting book and just unfolds so gently and heartbreakingly at the same time.
<Excerpt Dion Graham>
Jo Reed: I also love the title.
Dion Graham: I do too, it’s really evocative.
Jo Reed: Your voice also has to indicate not just nationality or race but class and age and region as well.
Dion Graham: Uh huh, and emotional state.
Jo Reed: Definitely emotional state because you’re telling a story through all this. How do you go about doing that with just your voice?
Dion Graham: <laughs> I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Here’s what I will say: I always feel like my first job is to bring it to life not arbitrarily but in response to whatever the work is, whatever the-- from the stage whatever the play is, if it’s a film whatever the script is, if it’s an audiobook whatever the book is so I read the book as I was saying before and I just try to be sensitive to what the author has written. Empathy is really important in doing that. I don’t want to make that sound twee ‘cause I’m -- it’s not that okay, now I’m going to turn on the -- no, it’s just -- I just try to be open and responsive to what the author has written and just let it flow through the channel, and I feel fortunate that whatever I came here with hopefully is in great service to bringing all that to life.
Jo Reed: Do you get in touch with living authors when you can?
Dion Graham: I do. I always try to have a conversation with the author. I just find that it's just helpful. They wrote it and, inevitably, something comes up that I would not have known or that enhances the telling of the story or some aspect of the story. So it's great. I like it. I know some people prefer not to but I really like to have a chat with the author before I begin. I just find it really, really useful.
Jo Reed: You've become such an important voice for telling African-American history and therefore American history. And some of it is well-known, like Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And I'm curious how you would approach that, because we all know Dr. King's voice. But you're not trying to imitate him.
Dion Graham: No. No, and, at the same time, I wanted to kind-of lean towards the essence of him his resonance in the narration of it. I didn’t want to be doing any kind of imitation of Dr. King and I didn’t want to be doing a bad imitation for sure. So I experimented a little bit, whether or not I could lean towards him and keep the focus on what he was saying. And, in doing that, I think I may have picked up some of his rhythms and hopefully, that enhanced the telling of that.
Jo Reed: Then there are titles that are little known. A book you did about the beginning of the klu klux klan for example and that's, They Call Themselves the KKK. Or A Slave No More, David Blythe's book.
Dion Graham: Yes, somebody's done their homework.
Jo Reed: I love David Blythe.
Dion Graham: David Blythe, he's great and what a great book that was. Tournage, who I read, he was, just rightfully indignant about his situation. And, man, in telling that story, and just channeling that narrative which David found, it was just really, really powerful.
Jo Reed: And Wallace Tournage was an enslaved person who fled the south during the civil war.
Dion Graham: Yes.
Jo Reed: And the book impart, is his own written narrative.
Dion Graham: Yes, you could feel him barely restrained screaming into the wind about his situation.
Jo Reed: And you also narrated Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
Dion Graham: That’s true actually. That's true, actually. That's very true. That was for a friend's project. I believe it was called Going Public in Shorts. A number of narrators contributed pieces on that pro-bono to raise money to contribute to causes that supported literacy in young people. And I just thought. Politically, at the time we were very divided. And that inaugural address by Abraham Lincoln, when he's talking about remembering that we are one people and let us knit together despite our differences, I just thought it would be a really worthwhile read for the time. So... Yeah, it was my choice. Definitely, it was my choice.
<Excerpt Dion Graham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address>
Jo Reed: I think that’s probably his most acclaimed speech, it’s certainly right there with Gettysburg. Loved it.
Dion Graham: Did you hear it?
Jo Reed: Yeah. I thought it was fabulous.
Dion Graham: Oh, thanks, Jo. And it's funny -- there was no budget to do any of that. So I actually did it at home on my laptop in Garage Band and I just thought -- and I'm not very skilled in Garage Band also, let me just say. There was one little slight effect on it. It was a slight reverb as if-- and so, the effect that was created was as if Abraham Lincoln was standing in front of a large crowd of people at the inauguration. And that was a happy accident, so.
Jo Reed: You have done so many extraordinary bios and memoires. I can't even begin to count them but Miles Davis, Muhammed Ali, Barack Obama and so on. Again, you don’t imitate those people but, in the case of Miles Davis, you did adopt that raspy voice. Tell me why you did that.
Dion Graham: So, when I was asked to do that, when I was asked to do Miles the Autobiography-- I'm a big Miles Davis fan, been forever. When I was asked to do that, of course, I was intrigued. And, as I was reading it I was thinking, "Okay, so how am I going to do this?," because I thought-- I really didn’t want to do a bad imitation of Miles and, at the same time, I thought but anybody who knows Miles, at particularly this point of his life, knows his iconic sound. And I just thought a straight read, if you will, just wouldn’t cut it. If it were me and I picked up this audio and I had to hear a straight read of Miles talking about his life and his experiences, I just think I would not have bothered to listen to that. And so, I looked at a lot of videos of his and just immersed myself in his music and interviews and so forth. And I thought, "Well, let me see if I can approximate this," and the rest is history as they say.
Jo Reed: Yes, you won one of your many awards for Miles. I’m really proud of that. That’s one of my favorites, I have to say.
<Excerpt Dion Graham as Miles Davis>
Jo Reed: Within the world of one book, especially in fiction, you create different voices for different characters. How do you keep them straight so that they each sound the same throughout the book?
Dion Graham: That’s a great question, Jo. Well, you know often times for whatever reason I just have them straight inside me but let’s be real also. Sometimes there's so many characters we have this great tool we can use, which is we make a memory location. We basically drop a marker for the character's voice. So let's say if it's two days later and I come back and the character is present again, we can always listen back to it to hear exactly how it sounds. Usually, I don’t need much but it's good to be reminded because sometimes characters, though they're different, the difference may be a matter of pitch or rhythm or something slight that might be hard to quantify but, when you hear it you know what it is. So I definitely use that and that's not magic. That's just being smart.
Jo Reed: You do a lot of young adult books.
Dion Graham: Sure
Jo Reed: You cast a wide net.
Jo Reed: You cast a wide net but young adult is something that you really do devote a great deal of time to.
Dion Graham: I do. I do. Listen, first of all, let me just say that, besides my career as an artist, I've also simply maintained a commitment to working with young people all this time. I just remember. I remember the things that seemed small but fun at the time. When you look back, you recognized that, wait, through that seemingly small thing, massive shifts happened in oneself. So, I really get a lot out of working with young people and working for and with them too. So, in audiobook land, I've been blessed to do a lot of great Y.A., middle age, and children's titles. I hope I get to continue to do that for the rest of my career as well. As well as everything else but I really do enjoy that work. I'm thinking right now of something-- I collaborate a lot with Live Oak Media, with Arnie and Deborah Cardillo. And I think the first thing we did that I was director and creative producer on was a book by the great Walter Dean Meyers called, We Are America illustrated by his son the great Christopher Meyers. But so many great things, The Rock in the River, by Kekla Magoon, Jackie Woodson's stuff, Locomotion and Piece Locomotion.
Jo Reed: And Locomotion and Piece Locomotion are both about a boy in foster care who gets himself through life by writing.
<Excerpt Dion Graham Locomotion>
Dion Graham: I'm getting ready to do a Y.A. title of Dave's, Dave Edgar's called The Lifters, which is coming up soon. And I just narrated his picture book called Her Left Foot, which is about the Statue of Liberty and what it really means.
Jo Reed: How do you narrate picture books? Do you describe the picture?
Dion Graham: Well, here's what's always key to me is, of course, you have the text there. But you're in response to not just the text but you're in response to whatever the artwork is as well, whatever the pictures are. And I just try to let them be my guide and go from there. A sort of funny one: Chris Meyer, Walter Dean Meyer's son wrote this great book called H.O.R.S.E. (horse, as in the kid's basketball game). Actually, we both narrated it, because it's about these two friends who have a healthy and fantastical competition in life and on the basketball court. I directed this one as well in an effort to just make Chris feel at home because he doesn’t normally narrate things, though he was great on it. I just wanted to create an environment where he felt free and we felt free to play as we went into the jousting with each other. And that created a great beginning of the book that led to just a fantastic, hilarious audio. And that went on to win the Odyssey so I'm really pleased about that for Chris and for Arnie and Deborah as well.
Jo Reed: And the Odyssey Award is given by the American Library Association for best audio book produced for children or young adults.
Dion Graham: Yes, mam that’s true. Thank you.
Jo Reed: How does narrating help with your stage work or your TV work and vice versa?
Dion Graham: Wow, that's an interesting question and it's funny because I was just thinking about this the other day. I think everything helps everything if you are open to it. And what I find-- when I'm narrating a book, when I'm narrating a story, I'm playing all of the parts and I'm also serving the role of tying the whole story together, which means point of view, tone, hopefully channeling what the author is trying to say, themes of the book. And I find that all of that is enormously deepening and connective in the rest of my work, and it’s a circle, it’s a bounce back if you will, because I find the same thing happens for me in terms of audiobooks. And people have their different ways of working. I don’t try to belabor choosing characters and anything like that. I didn’t have any, quote, "audiobook" training or anything like that. Basically, I didn’t have any rules that I felt were important to follow, besides connecting with the listener and bringing the story to life happening authentically from my response to the book. So characters come alive. I love to act, Jo. I never thought I would be doing it as a career but I would have to say that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good place to leave it. Dion, thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving me your time.
Dion Graham: Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure. Thank you so much, Jo.
Jo Reed: That was actor Dion Graham— You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find the Art Works wherever you get your podcasts. So please, subscribe and leave us a rating on apple—it really does help people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
An aural shape-shifter.