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Issue Date:  August 11, 2006

'From Sing Sing to Broadway'

Actor Charles Dutton found his calling in prison and helps other prisoners do the same


Charles S. Dutton knew he was going to be spending a lot of time sitting around waiting, so he wanted something to read. He reached for Franz Fanon’s 1963 book, The Wretched of the Earth, about black struggle for liberation in Algeria, but in his haste he pulled out an anthology of black playwrights instead and took it with him, not realizing his mistake. Although it wasn’t the book he wanted, it proved to be just the one he needed.

Mr. Dutton’s waiting experience was going to be a long one, six days in isolation in a Maryland penitentiary, or “the hole,” as he calls it, with meals only occasionally and no toilet, just a grate in the floor and only the light that came under the door.

“I had been there many times,” he said recently during a telephone interview from his farm in Maryland’s Howard County. “I was really an incorrigible. When you’re in the hole you want material that keeps you pissed off. You don’t want plays.”

But with only the anthology, a gift from a girlfriend, to get him through, he read and reread until he had memorized some of the plays. One in particular, Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 work, “A Day of Absence,” hooked him with its humor and satire, portraying a Southern town where all the blacks have disappeared for a day. Without its maids, gardeners and garbage collectors, the town devolves into chaos.

Although he had never seen a play before, Mr. Dutton decided to stage “A Day of Absence” for the prison talent show. Told he couldn’t until he got his high school equivalency, he got it and set about directing and appearing in the show. Not only was a star born with that experience, but a rehabilitated man as well.

“When I was out there on stage and the guys were laughing, I could see I had them in the palm of my hand,” he said. “I thought, ‘I just discovered what I was born to do.’ It was an enormous kind of power.”

He went around the prison for the next few days telling his friends he wouldn’t be joining in any more fights or riots. “I thought, ‘If I don’t see this through after I get out, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in and out of the penitentiary. It’s this or nothing.’ ”

With that in mind, he earned his junior college degree at the prison school and was released in the mid- 1970s, having served seven and a half years for manslaughter for stabbing a fellow teen to death in a Baltimore street fight in what he said was self-defense. He went on to earn a college degree in theater from Towson State University and then, in yet another amazing event in his life, received a scholarship to Yale University’s prestigious drama school, going in several years from jail to Yale. When he made his Broadway debut in 1985 in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” one critic called it “the most amazing debut in Broadway history.” It earned him the first of his two Tony Award nominations.

This June he was able to use his background to help other incarcerated men find transformation through theater, appearing at Playwrights Horizons, an off-Broadway theater, with eight former inmates in “From Sing Sing to Broadway: An Evening without Walls,” a benefit for Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a program for inmates in New York state prisons.

“I knew the value of that kind of rehabilitation because it worked for me,” he said.

Rehabilitation Through the Arts was founded by Katherine Vockins at Sing Sing Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., in 1996 after all publicly funded higher education and enrichment programs were withdrawn from the New York state prison system. Ms. Vockins, an international business consultant whose husband was teaching religion at Sing Sing, worked with prison administrators, community volunteers, theater professionals and the prison population to use theater arts to offer prisoners a safe and supportive structure in which to build skills and develop leadership, community, self-respect and a sense of achievement. Between 50 and 100 men a year are chosen by a steering committee. The only disqualifying factors are violent behavior in prison or numerous infractions.

“These are men who have decided they want to change their lives and they want to find whatever rehabilitative tools they can,” Ms. Vockins said. “We don’t have violence within the group. The form of theater precludes it. It’s community building. It breaks down barriers.”

She emphasizes the program is not seeking to train prisoners for acting careers when they are released but rather to help them develop language and social skills, appropriate ways to express themselves and writing skills.

Putting on two prison performances a year is a “huge challenge,” she said, adding that paperwork alone is “monumental.”

“They can’t wear certain colors or have certain things. Everything we want to bring in has to be looked at and every video watched first by somebody else.”

Of the 15 men who have been released after taking part in the program, Ms. Vockins is in touch with 11, most of whom have gone into social work.

“Rehabilitated men are contrite,” she said. “They want to give back.”

For this reason, Mr. Dutton selected the final scene of “King Lear” to do with eight men, who had served between eight and 25 years and had been part of Sing Sing’s program. The benefit also included the men doing skits about jail life and reciting monologues by men still behind bars. As poignant or comic as each of these were, the benefit’s finale out-powered them all. One by one, wearing their prison green jackets, the men came forward to tell how long they had been “home” -- measured down to the year, month and day -- how long they had been incarcerated and what they were doing now.

At the start of their talks, each man unbuttoned his jacket and tossed it on the stage, looking proud and happy about putting that life behind them. One in particular, Rory Anderson, looked absolutely radiant. Out just 88 days after 25 years behind bars, Mr. Anderson’s face shone in the way of people who have just received a new sacrament. For Mr. Dutton, that’s not surprising.

“Outside of truly finding religion, the second best rehabilitation is the arts because that’s one way you truly discover or rediscover your own humanity,” he said. “You’ve got to be vulnerable, no matter how much of a tough guy you’ve been. You peel away to the soul.

“I used to be a hard-core, hardhearted guy,” Mr. Dutton said. “Once you make the decision to change, all kinds of things happen.”

Retta Blaney writes frequently on theater for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2006

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