Life for Charles Dutton wasn’t a stroll in the park on a sunny day. The actor, director and inspirational speaker faced many bumpy trails, crossed sketchy paths and sidestepped many routes with pitch-black skies.
Dutton spoke at the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix campus Thursday night as part of its 2014 Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Lecture Series. In his speech titled “From Jail to Yale,” Dutton discussed the struggles and triumphs he experienced in the Maryland prison system, his desire for higher education and his passion for acting.
The Great Hall was packed and UVI President David Hall said he wasn’t surprise that the event was “standing room only.”
“I’ve been in juvenile reform school since I was 12,” Dutton said. His enrollment in juvi continued from age 13 to 15. Dutton said he did miscellaneous things and misdemeanors; however, his life changed at age 17 when he got into a fight during the summer with another male which who died from the clash. Dutton said both of them stabbed each other at least several times. “It was self-defense,” he said.
With his steaming juvenile record, the judge – calling Dutton a “vicious mean young man” –sentenced him to five years in prison. After being released from jail, Dutton said he sidetracked back to his negative ways and was charged with possession of a gun. While in prison, Dutton said he fought a correction officer. On his release day, the officers brought up the past incident with the correction officer which ended with Dutton being sentenced eight years for the brawl.
Dutton said that with everything occurring in his life, he wanted to be “revolutionary.”
He said while serving his term, he was placed six days in “the hole” – solitary confinement. Dutton said prisoners were allowed one book in the hole and he wanted a book that contained deep thought or revolutionary characteristics.
“I wanted a book that will get you pissed off,” he said. Dutton said he took a book given to him by accident by his girlfriend, an anthology of black playwrights. After lying on the cold cement floor and reading the book under the door with minimal light, Dutton said he fell in love with acting. “I felt energized,” he said.
With his new addiction for acting, Dutton asked his warden for the approval of a drama group amongst the prisoners. He said the warden agreed to the idea, but Dutton had to obtain his GED.
Dutton said the next day he told the prisoners he turned a new leaf, yet despite the desire to stay out of trouble, another inmate attacked him after an argument over what to watch on TV. Dutton said the guy stabbed him in his neck with an 11-inch ice pick. After being treated for the stab wound, Dutton was relocated to another jail. “If I’d have stayed, I would have a vendetta against him,” he said.
After obtaining a two-year college degree in jail, Dutton said his passion was to enroll in college for theater after his release. He said he got his bachelor’s of arts in theater in 1978 from Towson State University in Baltimore, but did not know what would be his next step. He said he spoke with his theater professor and asked, “How can I become an actor?”
Dutton said he figured his career could start in New York, but his advisor said he would be “another struggling actor.” He said his professor urged him to attend Yale.
After receiving $900 dollars from his professor, Dutton decided to go to Yale School of Drama. He said he auditioned for enrollment, but was not accepted. “I was put on an alternate list,” he said.
“I was fuming with anger.” Dutton said he knew he was meant to be an actor. He said he kept calling the register office at Yale hoping someone withdrew from the program. He said his last attempt was a success. Dutton had been awarded a place in the program.
Dutton said the board at Yale, with his criminal background, needed him to prove how badly he wanted to be in the program.
Besides actress Angela Basset being in his class, there weren’t many black students in the program, but he said the other students weren’t intimidating. Dutton said he remained tight-lipped in the class, however, because he felt he wasn’t good enough.
During Thursday’s lecture, Dutton performed a skit from the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and recited a lyric from Shirley Horn’s song “Here’s to Life.”
Dutton also urged the crowd to avoid drugs. He also said someone’s criminal background stays with him or her for the rest of their lives. The lecture ended with questions and answers by the audience.
Dutton is known for his roles on Roc and in Rudy and Alien 3.
The Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Lecture Series celebrates and acknowledges the accomplishments of UVI trustee Alfred O. Heath, who is the foundation chairman.