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Performance Wed Feb 20 2013
Charles Dutton knows acting; the three-time Emmy Award winner, who is also a successful director, is one of the most accomplished and versatile actors today. Best known for his critically-acclaimed 90s sitcom, "Roc," and for Tony Award-nominated roles in The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Dutton has enjoyed a successful career as a star of stage, screen and television.
With two performances to benefit the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy, a joint program of the Chicago Police Department and the University of Chicago for at-risk youth, Dutton returns to town tonight with From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage, his honest, autobiographical, one-man stage play that details his journey from Maryland's prisons to playhouses at Yale School of Drama and beyond. Here, he talks about how he became an actor, why he brought the show to Chicago, and the pandemic of youth violence in America.
When you were incarcerated, you became interested in theater after reading a book on black playwrights--was there a particular play or playwright that grabbed your attention?
It was Douglas Turner Ward's play, Day of Absence. It is a political satire that I thought was hilarious. Once, I was in "the hole" for six days and was allowed to take one book with me. I reached for a revolutionary book but I accidentally picked up this anthology of black playwrights. I read it and I said that when I got out of isolation, I was going to get the craziest guys I knew in the prison and start a drama group.
Were you interested in plays before then?
I didn't know anything about drama--I had never read, seen, directed, or acted in a play--but I thought this play was so hilarious. It spoke to me.
How did you go about putting the play on?
There was always a talent show around Christmas and I got ten of the most demonstrative, biggest damn liars in the prison and put the play on. There was a schoolteacher at the prison who agreed to supervise the group. At first, the warden didn't want me to do it because he thought maybe I was just trying to get near the administration building or escape or something, but I assured him it was legit and he reluctantly agreed to do it.
Once you were released from prison, you continued to pursue theater. Were you ever worried about your past interfering with things?
I was in a play and a couple of days after we opened, some news reporter called the producers and said, "We understand your lead actor spent time in prison." The producer didn't know, so he went off on the woman. Now the director, the great Lloyd Richards knew, so he and the producer called me in. The producer was just worried about what kind of crime I was in prison for, like, if it was the kind of crime that would force the show to close. I told him that I was a "basic outlaw"--that I robbed and things of that nature. They then relaxed and we came up with a game plan to let me be the one to talk about it; that way, I would be the one to shape the narrative.
So you took control of your own story...
I wanted to be the first to talk about it. I knew it wasn't anything I could hide; if I stayed under the radar as a stage actor, I could have hidden it for years, but I came out of the box starring on Broadway. That was my first job.
You're bringing your one-man stage play, From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage, to Chicago. The title is very straightforward, but it's a little more than that. Tell us about it.
Basically, the show is a self-effacing narrative of my life story. I talk about my journey through the court system--juvenile and adult. I don't really make it heavy; although I talk about really dramatic and tragic things, I try to keep it light, upbeat and informative. It's my life story interspersed with a medley of scenes from several of the great playwrights' works that I've performed.
How was From Jail to Yale conceived? What were your thoughts going in?
The show itself had many evolutions; it started originally as a tribute to the late August Wilson after he passed away, so it's a narrative of our time together as two artists, when and how we met, and my creating and developing roles in three of his first four plays. As the years went on, I said that I may be able to tell my own story and with the same format I used to talk about August and me and that it might be interesting.
When did you first perform the show?
I was asked to do it first in Baltimore for a youth organization, but my ulterior motive is that it gives me a chance to get back on stage which I don't get to do much anymore. I only do it for organizations that I find worthy and that are involved with youth; when I met the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy and the police officer that ran that program, I was impressed with what he was doing with those kids.
I was present last summer when you met them while you were promoting your film, The Obama Effect. Everyone saw how impressed you were.
I was! I asked [Sgt. O'Connor], "How are you guys funded? Do you get any money from the city or the state?" He looked at me and without even saying anything, I knew what the answer was. I then told him I'd be willing to come back and do a fundraiser and that's how it all came about. This is the first time doing it in Chicago but I've done it in most of the most major big cities like New York and Pittsburgh. I enjoy doing the show because I get a chance to talk to the youth.
Besides being impressed by them, was there anything else that stood out to you?
When I looked up and down that line of kids, a lot of them had some hard looks--and some hard eyes--and I said to myself, "If these kids weren't in this program right now, there's no telling where they'd be." I was also impressed with the fact that there was somebody who would take the time and interest in them. As a kid coming up, I had a lot of folks who were interested in trying to save me, but I didn't want to listen. I thought I knew it all and had it all figured out but I had to suffer the consequences of that stupidity for many years before I turned it around.
Do you ever get tired of talking about your time spent in prison?
Knowing that there aren't too many people who go from jail to Yale, I knew it would be a subject that would be with me for as long as I'm in the business. And there are times I get tired of talking about it, well, not in the form I'm going to do it in for this performance, but there are times when I'm doing press on something else or I'm doing a film that has nothing to do with that and people will bring it up. I always tell them that it's an old story and if they want to find out more, just go look it up.
As you know, when it comes to youth violence, all eyes are on Chicago; most recently, the city attracted national headlines with the murder of young Hadiya Pendleton. Since you've performed From Jail to Yale in cities all over the country, what are your thoughts on what's happening here?
I know every city is different and that Chicago has its own set of circumstances--I've even talked with old school gang members in Chicago who were "sho nuff, sho nuff" and even they said, "Man, we can't even figure this out." Hearing it from them and to see that even they were lost for words was a powerful moment.
When you spoke with those old school gang members, did they offer any suggestions or solutions?
I talk about this in the show; we, the older generation, bear a huge responsibility for what has developed. A lot of guys will deny that or don't want to face that because then they have to sleep with it. And I'm not just talking about Chicago--this is all across the country. Unfortunately, the older generation has to pull up its sleeves again.
At the event last summer, you stated that you are "an artist first and foremost who tries to advance civilization." Do you think arts-based programs can work as a possible solution?
I know the arts work; I believe in the transformation and power of the arts. I think and believe wholly that if there were more arts complexes in all of these challenged neighborhoods throughout the United States, instead of fried chicken joints and crack houses, I think we'd have less crime.
How do you think the youth will react to this performance?
Well, this generation doesn't know me as "Roc"--they know me from my movies. I don't "dummy" the show down; I give it the same seriousness as I give adult shows. I'm going to have a ball doing it and I think the kids will respond well to it.
What message do you want the audience to gain after seeing From Jail to Yale?
The message is that anything is possible, regardless of your circumstances--and I know the circumstances are awful. I don't have all the answers, but I do know something has to give and something has to change. And for the older folks, my generation and up, we've gotta put the boots back on. It's a struggle from the cradle to the grave but we've got to show the generations under us how it was done.
See Charles Dutton's From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage at the Logan Center for the Arts Performance Hall, 915 E. 60th St., Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 20 and 21 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 (adults) and $10 (students) and may be purchased online at the Logan Center box office, or by calling 773-702-2787.