Charles Dutton in Honeydripper
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On Saturday — for one night only — Charles Dutton performed his one-man show at Tarrant County College. It’s an autobiographical show — From Jail to Yale — Serving Time on Stage — and unlike many celebrities, Dutton has actually led a life well worth the recounting. But it wasn’t his life story that made the evening so memorable.
People may know the Emmy Award-winning actor from TV shows like his old Fox sitcom Roc (he also directed the outstanding HBO mini-series, The Corner). But Dutton first made his name as an actor in the late August Wilson’s stage dramas, notably Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1990, I was lucky enough to see him on Broadway in Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
In fact, Dutton and Wilson’s joint efforts were one of those rare moments in American theater history. A major new dramatist found his stage voice through a major new actor. It was like Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando. Or David Mamet and Joe Mantegna. Seriously: Dutton went a long way toward defining the Wilson protagonist, the young black male trying to fight his way out of the painful legacies of the past — his own, his family’s, his race’s. They are haunted, burdened but determined — sometimes tragically determined — men.
So getting to see Dutton in Tarrant County College’s Joe Rushing Theater — presented by the Fort Worth alumnae of Delta Sigma Theta — was a remarkable opportunity. Rushing has only 256 seats; it’s not much larger than Theatre 3 in Dallas — that’s how intimate it was. Halfway through, you could see Dutton had already sweated through his shirt. That’s how hard he was working. The evening — as a coherent piece of theater — is pretty much two pieces with not much linkage: half-life story, half-acting-demo.
Dutton does have an amazing life story. A hard-knock child of the East Baltimore streets, he’s a twice-convicted felon — once for manslaughter, once for assaulting a prison guard. Yet he wound up graduating from the Yale School of Drama. His salvation was an anthology of black playwrights that he mistakenly grabbed just as he was being thrown into solitary confinement (he’d wanted to grab Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth). By the light filtering under his cell door, Dutton managed to read Douglas Turner Ward’s comedy, A Day of Absence. He found the play so funny, he set about creating a theater troupe to stage it for the prison’s talent show. Mercifully, as he noted, back then, we were still serious about rehabilating criminals instead of just incarcerating them: Dutton simply had to convince the warden he was serious by getting his GED. He eventually earned a two-year associate’s degree.
Charles Dutton (left) in the Yale Rep premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
But as engaging as all this was — and as entertaining as Dutton was in relating what must, to him, be very familiar stories — the real payoff came in the show’s second half. Dutton performed scenes from August Wilson’s dramas – including a sizable chunk of Ma Rainey, in which he played four different members of Ma’s band. He also played Loomis from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Boy Willie from The Piano Lesson. It was like watching George C. Scott at the top of his game take a walk through his greatest hits.
Dutton can be that compelling onstage. That’s because in prison, what Dutton had discovered wasn’t just theater. From his very first performance, he realized he could command an audience’s attention. But his tremendous stage presence isn’t just a matter of his burly size or voice. It’s that he’s fearless and utterly committed to the part, even if it’s a wise old storyteller like Toledo from Ma Rainey.
And on Saturday in Fort Worth, Dutton was spellbinding.