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A CurtainUp Book Review
Command Performance
An Actress in the Theater of Politics

This is not your usual celebrity bio, with lots of insider gossip and names dropped for the sake of dropping names. The focus here is on substantive matters pertaining to the support (and, as often, the non-support) of the arts, through the lens of an actress who put her career as a stage, film and television actress on hold to serve as head of the National Endowment of the Arts (1993-1997). On the other hand, this isn't a dry policy wonk account, but a fascinating tapestry of a book which smoothly weaves Ms. Alexander's professional and personal life with her on the job training as a government official.

Until the NEA appointment, Ms. Alexander's only bureaucratic experience was as a politically active citizen, though she was approached to run for office after portraying Eleanor Roosevelt in a television mini-series. Her commitment to the agency was bolstered by her role in The Great White Hope, which earned her a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination and was developed with an NEA grant.

Using the organizing principle of 15 theatrical chapter titles, divided into 2 acts and bookended by a prologue and epilogue, Ms. Alexander neatly links her life as a theater professional with her stint in the theater of politics. In chapters titled "The Audition", "The Rehearsal" and "Curtain Up" she takes us back through the intricate voyage from her nomination to her confirmation.

A personal drama -- the discovery that the man who managed her family's finances had been playing with their assets (as well as those of numerous other celebrities) -- sent her to Washington weighed down by debts. No money to rent the apartment she envisioned for bringing people together on behalf of the agency she was to head! Forced to borrow the wardrobe needed for her many appearances! Yet, she soldiered on.

As soon as she was sworn in the process of learning the ropes and expanding her list of useful acquaintances. Her profiles of the movers and shakers, for and against NEA, with whom she had to deal make for fascinating reading and reveal a dry authorial wit.

While her training as an actress undoubtedly stood her in good stead it did not cushion the bumpy ride ahead. No sooner did this Washington outsider learn to deal with the Beltway insiders than she was confronted with the Gingrich Congress. Her plan to increase NEA funding and visibility turned into a desperate battle of containment -- if not total extinction.

The agency survived but a personal tragedy and mounting disenchantment with the time-wasting politicalization of the legislative process prompted Alexander to resign.

She is realistic in evaluating her experience, and while she remains committed to the belief in public service and an active citizenry, she is hardly a cockeyed optimist. The theater world comes out more than a few steps ahead of the government in effectiveness. To explain the frustrations of dealing with the bureaucracy she likens it to the always results-oriented production of a play which benefits from a more collaborative atmosphere for settling differences.

As I said at the outset, this is not your typical showbiz-beach "read". However, the author's intelligence and likeability, combined with her large cast of political and show business celebrities, make for an entertaining and informative discussion of important arts issues.

COMMAND PERFORMANCE: An Actress in the Theater of Politics
Public Affairs (304pp. 8 pages black and white photos )
Official Publication Date: June 2000
$25.00 -- available on line and discounted at CurtainUp's Book Store
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Sommer, CurtainUp.
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