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Booklist’s fifth annual Voice of Choice, Cincinnati-born actor Dion Graham, began reading audiobooks in 2000, and since that time, he has recorded more than 130 titles, won four Audie awards, narrated two Odyssey Honor titles, and received many other accolades and awards. He recorded his first audio (James Joyce’s The Dead) on cassette for a friend. His professional narrating career began after a referral from a fellow actor in London, where Graham was performing a Tennessee Williams play, and from that introduction, his successful career began. I spoke with the personable actor (whose voice is deep, mesmerizing, and, some may say, seductive) by telephone from his home in New York City. Listeners may recognize him from appearances on such television shows as The Wire, The Good Wife, and Law and Order, or from his roles in plays at Lincoln Center, among others.
Graham sets the standard for high-quality narration with his passionate commitment to his craft and attention to detail. His exceptional success stems from this passion and his desire to reflect the author’s vision in his role as storyteller. His credo demands that he “tell the story, be open to creative impulses, respond to the text, and trust my instincts.” Luckily for listeners, his instincts are always spot-on, and his desire to “get it right” requires intense preparation. For his recent recording of Miles Davis’ memoir Miles: The Autobiography, Graham listened to interviews with Davis and watched videos in order to accurately capture the musician’s voice and cadence.
His chameleon voice—described variously as melodious, raspy, intense, dreamy, soothing, silky, unsettling, warm, and mellow—allows him to portray a range of characters. In his reading of Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship (Brilliance), a 2010 Odyssey Honor title, the Booklist review notes that “experienced actor Graham proves to be an Everyman narrator. . . . Graham’s distinct and powerful tones add dignity to the book’s nameless narrator, who comments on those who played in the Negro Leagues and their experiences.” The Booklist review of 2010 Odyssey Honor title Peace, Locomotion (Brilliance) states that Graham’s “heartfelt performance is grounded in the soulful, jazzy street cadences of Brooklyn’s African American neighborhoods.” Graham frequently reads titles by African American authors, and he clearly appreciates the opportunity to bring classics by such authors as James Baldwin and Chester Himes back into the mainstream. However, his recordings of titles by Dave Eggers, George Pelecanos, and other contemporary writers reveal his expertise at portraying a wide range of ethnically diverse characters as well. In Pelecanos’ gritty crime drama The Cut (AudioGo), Graham is “equally adept with both Caucasian and African American characters without approaching stereotypical speech patterns,” according to the Booklist review.
Asking Graham to name favorites among the titles he’s narrated is, in his words, like “picking favorites among your children.” He speaks passionately about many of his recordings, not about his performances, but about the books and authors. For example, he’s developed a friendship with Dave Eggers over the years, and after reading What Is the What (AudioGo) in 2007, he has recorded most of Eggers’ works. Other favorite authors, including Octavia Butler, Pete Dexter, David Fulmer, Walter Mosley, and Jacqueline Woodson, also deserve mention, among dozens of others. Graham sees audiobook reading as “an exciting, evolving art form” that “engages your head and heart and even makes you laugh out loud sometimes.” This philosophy stands as a hallmark of his work. His heartfelt readings bring an extra dimension, gravitas, and often humor to all he narrates. Connecting listeners to the rich possibilities of a text is a goal he sets for himself. Creative passion drives Graham—passion for the art of storytelling, the books he narrates, the author’s voice and intentions—all revealed in his amazing ability to translate the written word to listeners’ ears, a feat he masterfully accomplishes and for which we honor him as the 2012 Booklist Voice of Choice.
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