Charles Dutton Not a Prisoner of His Past : Stage: Former convict who has earned a Tony nomination takes on his latest challenging role in August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson.’
Charles S. Dutton, who stars as the boisterous Boy Willie in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” isn’t the first actor who ever served time. But he is probably the first man to come out of a state penitentiary, leapfrog to the Yale Drama School--from “jail to Yale,” as Dutton put it--and later earn a Broadway Tony nomination (as restless trumpet player Levee in Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”).
Now the visceral and physical actor is performing another urgent character in “The Piano Lesson,” opening today at the James A. Doolittle Theatre, with a boyish, non-stop babble that’s a classic American role. Wilson recently said he wrote the role with Dutton in mind: “I wanted to write something to challenge his talent.”
The result: a restaging of the original Yale Rep production is booked for 10 weeks into the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson season at the Doolittle before heading for Broadway in April.
The transformation in Dutton’s life didn’t happen overnight, but it’s a staggering reversal from a nightmare world of prison. Dutton, who will be 39 on Jan. 30, estimates that, including reform school, he has spent nearly 10 years locked up. He last walked out of a cell 13 years ago when he was paroled from Maryland State Penitentiary, after a series of convictions for manslaughter, possession of a deadly weapon and fighting with a guard.
A couple of things happened that saved him, he said over an iced tea on the porch of the show-bizzy Off Vine Cafe in Hollywood. Dutton, dapper in black-and-white wing-tipped shoes and a black-and-white speckled sports jacket, was suddenly talking as fast as his character Boy Willie in “Piano Lesson.” And that’s fast.
“I’ve never done anything I’ve been ashamed of,” he said. “I never hurt anybody who wasn’t trying to hurt me. But I was wrongheaded, that’s for sure.
“I quit school in the seventh grade. I thought there was more happening on the corner. In my neighborhood in Baltimore, you were expected to go to prison. It was a given, like some kids expect to go to college.
“My manslaughter conviction came from a fight with a guy who stabbed me seven times. I wrestled the knife from him and killed him. Got 18 months (in 1967). Then got three years for possession of a weapon and another eight years tacked on for a fight with a guard.
“I was a tough guy in prison. I was involved with the Panthers and the Leftist movement. I considered myself a political prisoner. I was a knucklehead. I adapted to prison life but I wasn’t conditioned by it. I didn’t decorate my cell.”
Dutton’s turnabout didn’t come in the form of a revelation--but it was theatrical. In 1972, a friend on the outside sent him a play, Douglas Turner Ward’s one-act, “Day of Absence,” in which the blacks in a Southern town disappear for a day, leaving the whites helpless.
“I staged the play with some other inmates and set up a drama workshop. That involvement freed me from my prison instincts. Suddenly, my hard-core buddies in prison looked prehistoric.”
But trouble found Dutton anyway. A rival inmate snuck up behind Dutton and plunged a knife into his neck, hospitalizing him for two months. It gave Dutton time to think. “I told myself: ‘If I live through this I’m retiring from this world of stupidity.’ ”
And retire he did, earning a community college degree in prison, getting paroled and earning a B.A. in ’78 from Towson State University in Maryland. A Towson professor told him to apply for a drama scholarship at Yale because, Dutton said with a laugh, “the man said there are so many bleeding hearts at Yale you are bound to get in.”
Dutton’s application arrived the same year theater director Lloyd Richards took over the Yale drama department. And thus began the symbiosis between Richards, his protege, playwright August Wilson, and Dutton, who would star in their productions of “Ma Rainey,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson.”
Every Wilson play, Dutton said, has that “fine demarcation line between laughter and serious drama, and as an actor if you start playing into the farce you can’t go back. You have to be careful with a black audience because there’s a tendency for them to lure you into playing the farce. There’s a fine line between the reality of Boy Willie and buffoonery. If you’re into farce you can’t take the play seriously.”
The play has also been changing constantly since it was first staged two years ago in Boston.
“In the early going I was shooting through my lines, and I thought my character was too similar to Levee, the trumpet player, in ‘Ma Rainey.’ But Boy Willie doesn’t have that violent underbelly, and Levee is a city slicker. Boy Willie is a farmer. Here’s a black man trying to buy 100 acres in the South in the Depression.”
Dutton is on a roll--not to mention a honeymoon. He was recently married to actress Debbie Morgan of ABC’s “All My Children.” He has done other plays, TV and movies (“ ‘Crocodile’ Dundee II” among them, and Sidney Lumet’s forthcoming “Q and A”). “I don’t look at myself in lofty ways,” he said. “I can’t bang a hammer or fix a toilet. I just happened to fall into this.”
But he has what he calls “a love-hate relationship with theater. I’ve worked in regional theaters with names that would surprise you where the actors need the job so badly they’re willing to take abuse for the lofty sense that maybe they are somebody. I don’t particularly enjoy the theater except when I’m out of it. Once you leave the grad school mentality, you find out it’s a tough experience. I feel lucky to be involved with this group of people.”