Stage Revealed Talents of Baltimore-Born Actor

By Johnson, Marlene L. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Stage Revealed Talents of Baltimore-Born Actor


Johnson, Marlene L., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Actor Charles S. Dutton's first love is the stage, but he says, "You can't make a living onstage. You do stage for yourself. You don't do it for money."

Onstage, "you live right in the moment," he says. "You can't say `Cut.' "

The Baltimore native, who studied drama at Yale, acts in films - movies and television - for money. "Any stage role will challenge you because it's alive, but some film roles you can kind of just phone in," says Mr. Dutton, 49. "You don't have to be a good actor. Eighty-five percent of film actors put onstage wouldn't know what to do."

Mr. Dutton can speak on that with authority. Since starring in playwright August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and Mr. Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Piano Lesson" and winning Tony nominations for both, Mr. Dutton has appeared in 38 feature films. He also starred in the weekly TV comedy "Roc" from 1991 to 1994.

During a recent telephone interview, Mr. Dutton says he had agreed to do his current television film - "Deadlocked" - because of "the intensity of the piece. I thought it was more than just a courtroom drama."

Regarding the justice system's effect on black men, he says, "The scales of justice have been in imbalance. `Deadlocked' is a reflection of the courtroom in America. The only remedy [the film] reflects is if you have enough money to get good legal defense, you will come out on top."

On the question of the death penalty, Mr. Dutton says: "On the personal side, if somebody did something to one of my relatives, I would want to kill that person. But I don't believe in state-sponsored retribution."

Mr. Dutton is no stranger to the justice system.

His parents divorced when he was 4, and he was raised by his mother, who cleaned houses and decided to forgo welfare for herself and her three children. Mr. Dutton grew up in an East Baltimore housing project near the Maryland State Penitentiary, where he landed at age 16 after stabbing a man to death during a street fight. He also was in the state prison at Jessup, Md., for five years.

While in prison, Mr. Dutton eschewed cleaning toilets and was placed in isolation for three days. He spent the time reading a book of plays he found in the prison library. It was through Douglas Turner Ward's play, "Day of Absence" that he found his calling - acting.

Paroled after 7 1/2 years, he attended what is now Towson University in Baltimore County. He then entered Yale Drama School, where he met director Lloyd Richards and playwright Wilson.

Asked where he gets the energy for his passionate portrayals, he says, "It's like anything else you do. It has to be the most important thing that you do at the moment. …

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