Award-winning actor Charles S. Dutton is in Chicago this week performing his one- man play, “From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on the Stage.” The show chronicles Dutton’s journey from prison in Baltimore to theatrical and television success. The veteran actor spoke exclusively to Defender about his stage production and the impact arts can have on youth.
CD: Your stage play is based off of your life from jail to Yale University, what exactly inspired or attracted you to acting while you were in jail?
CSD: It was after many years of being in different penitentiaries throughout the State of Maryland, that one day I read a play – “A Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward. I found it so hilarious that I thought I’d get eight or nine of the craziest guys I knew in the prison and start a drama group. It was the early 1970s and it was still a lot of rehabilitation going on in the prisons. It’s all about punishment now. But it was through the course of the (drama group) that I discovered what I was born to do.
CD: Did you apply to the Yale School of Drama immediately after you got out of prison?
CSD: No … I got out of prison in 1976 with my associate’s degree. Then I graduated from Towson State University in ’78 with a B.A. degree. I messed around the Baltimore and D.C. area doing local theater. The chair of the undergraduate department at Towson State suggested that I apply to Yale. I laughed it off, but gave it a try. I filled out an application, auditioned and to my surprise … I was accepted.
CD: Are there multiple characters in the play, or is it one man’s journey?
CSD: It’s a narrative of my life story interspersed with a medley of scenes and monologues from the great plays I performed – Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neil and August Wilson. But, I don’t make it tragic. I do that to let young people know that when I was a teenager, I was undergoing the same things they are undergoing. It’s to get them to know that they don’t have to go to prison in order to succeed.
CD: How important is the arts in the lives of young people?
CSD: I really believe that if we had more art complexes than crack houses and fried chicken joints in challenged communities, we would have less crime. That’s not to say (art) will save the world or stop any carnage, but it’s a way to put a dent in the problems. But we, as a nation, have to change the way we think. We have to want to give young people a chance and change their lives. It’s got to be an overall change in philosophy about life.
Charles Dutton performs “From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage” Wednesday and Thursday at the Logan Arts Center, 915 E. 60th Street. Proceeds from the performances will benefit the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy, a program that exposes youth from high‐risk neighborhoods to college life through a collaborative effort of the Chicago Police Department’s 3rd and 7th Districts and the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement.
For more information, call (773) 702-2787, visit the Logan Arts Center’s box office, or go online to ticketsweb.uchicago.edu.