BY JAMES HARPER
Not many Black males have the success story that Charles Dutton can tell.
Dutton realized that if he put his mind to something he could make it happen. One brick wall he came up against was trying to vote.
“In 2002, I tried to vote but I was told I had a criminal record,” he explained.
That all would change in 2007 when Maryland, his home state, changed its law-allowing residents convicted of a crime the right to vote.
He would cast his first vote at age 57 in 2008 for Barack Obama.
Since getting his voting rights, Dutton has been going around the country telling his story and hoping states that prevent convicted felons from voting to change their laws to give felons their voting right back once they complete their sentence.
Florida is one of those states that won’t allow convicted felons to vote.
Dutton was the featured speaker on May 24 at the Volusia County-Daytona Beach NAACP 40th Annual Freedom Fund and Awards Banquet at the Plaza Resort and Spa.
The purpose of the occasion was to recognize organizations, businesses and individuals who have made a difference in the community.
Part of the proceeds raised from ticket sales also went to four $1,000 scholarships presented to graduating seniors – all from Mainland High School.
The scholarship recipients were Monica Moss and Cornelius “C.J.’’ Davis, both accepted at Bethune-Cookman University; Brandyn Thompson, who will attend Florida A&M University; and Brianna Williams, who will matriculate at Howard University.
Dutton’s path to college was different from the students, but the story he shared with the audience was a good lesson for the students to take home with them.
“I should have been dead,” Dutton told the audience, sharing that from 12 to 15 years of age he spent most of his time in reform school.
By the time he was 17, he would begin his first stint in prison for killing a Black man – which he noted because he received five years for that crime. His next conviction would be for eight years for striking a White man.
“I chose to be an outlaw. I was alive; he was dead. I was 17. It was self-defense. I didn’t care. I was told to act remorseful. But I wasn’t an actor then,” said Dutton about his first arrest.
Became actor in prison
It was during his second stint in prison, at 19, when he discovered “what I was born to do.”
Dutton had gotten into trouble and was sent to solitary confinement. He was able to take a book and by mistake picked up an anthology of one-act plays.
“When you go to the hole, you want to read something that is going to keep you pissed off,” he said.
He read plays while in “the hole,” and when he went back into the general prison population, he got a group of inmates together and formed a drama group.
He was eventually able to convince the warden to let them put on a play, but the there was one condition – he had to get his GED, which the warden didn’t think he would complete.
Performed ‘Day of Absence’
Dutton, who quit school in the seventh grade when he was 12 years old, was so passionate about putting on the play that he shocked the warden, passed the necessary tests, received his GED. The warden kept his word.
His first play would require him to put on white makeup.
The play, a “Day of Absence” was performed during the prison’s fall talent show.
The play is described by the author as “A Reverse Minstrel Show.’’ An all-Black cast, made up in white face, recounts the uproarious emergencies, which occur when a Southern town is faced with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of all its Black citizens.
Dutton and his group won first place.
“It uncomplicated my life,” he noted.
Determined to excel
Performing in the play gave Dutton a purpose and he made an announcement while in prison that he was retiring from fighting and getting into trouble.
“You see it, reach out and grab it. If you deviate, you will spin the rest of life in and out of penitentiary,” said Dutton, who went on to get his associate’s degree while in prison.
Dutton said on his first day out of prison he went to Towson State University to try to enroll. His first attempt was rejection, but he was determined to get in and told the registrar he had just gotten out of prison and had to be accepted.
He said that got her attention. She sent him to the dean of the college.
“He scratched somebody’s name off and wrote my name down,” Dutton said with a chuckle.
Towson State University (now known as Towson University) is in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, Md.
Dutton would eventually graduate from Towson with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
He made a name for himself in his hometown, having appeared in a couple of plays. But soon opportunities for acting stopped coming.
“I was back on the street corner. I didn’t know how to take the next step, needed to be told how to do it. I was institutionalized,” he explained.
He would soon be told a lot of people were depending upon him and didn’t like seeing him going in the wrong direction.
Dutton said a voice told him to go to Yale University to get a master’s degree.
Like his first attempt at Towson, he was rejected, but his luck of being accepted the same day didn’t materialize.
“The White man don’t want me to succeed,” Dutton said he thought to himself, but he didn’t give up, For the next eight weeks, daily, he called the school asking if there was an opening.
“I called again and again, Finally they accepted me,’ he said, noting he had to prove himself to them that he was serious.
“Word went around the neighborhood I was to going to jail instead of Yale,” Dutton said to laughter from the audience.
Dutton said he spent seven years, 11 months in the penitentiary. Seven years and eight months later, he would be starring in his first Broadway play.
Dutton would go on to do more plays, movies and television appearances.
He is most known for his role as “Roc” a FOX sitcom from the 1980s in which he starred as a father taking care of his family driving a garbage truck.
His play, “From Yale to Jail: Serving Time on Stage,” is an autobiographical tale of how the Emmy winner found his passion for theater while serving time in a Baltimore prison, earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and carved out a successful acting career.