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Friday, September 29, 2023

Life + Arts

Actor discusses prison, Yale and chasing dreams

“Houston, we don’t have a problem, we have a chance,” said Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee as she addressed the crowded Cullen Performance Hall Saturday night.

The crowd, composed of UH community members, residents of the third ward and the greater Houston area were gathered together to watch noted thespian Charles S. Dutton perform “From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on the Stage.”

The performance was a benefit for The U.S. Dream Academy, an organization that works with students from 3rd through 8th grade who are struggling academically, live in high-risk communities and have a parent in prison or family history of imprisonment. Foster Elementary is a Dream Academy school in Third Ward.

Dutton is a veteran stage, television and film actor, director, producer, three-time Emmy award winner, Golden Globe nominee and Tony Award nominee. He is has appeared in movies such as “Aliens 3,” “Rudy,” “Gothika” and “A Time to Kill.”

Dutton was given a three-year sentence at the age of 17 after being arrested on charges of manslaughter. He managed to get out of the manslaughter charge, but was convicted of possession of a deadly weapon. He served those three years in their entirety, but was given indictment papers for the assault of a prison guard the day he was scheduled to be released, for which he served an additional seven-and-a-half year sentence.

Dutton read and fell in love with an anthology of black playwrights during his last prison term and decided to start an acting troupe in his prison. He described his first performance as one of the most pivotal moments of his life.

“Somewhere in that speech, I paused, like a light had hit me and said ‘you just discovered what you were born to do on this planet,’” Dutton said.

Dutton managed to get his GED and an associate of arts degree while in prison and his Bachelor of Arts degree after getting out of prison. He was eventually accepted into the graduate theatre program at Yale University.

After a lengthy applause from the audience, Dutton opened the floor to questions.

“How does one maintain one’s integrity as a struggling artist?” asked Alicia Stevens, a junior theatre major from Texas Southern.

“You have to be an artist first.” Dutton said. “If you are a real artist in Hollywood, they know not to mess with you. It is intoxicating in Hollywood because they throw a lot of money at you. You have to draw your own line of demarcation in the sand and say this is what I will do and what I will not do.”

“For those of us in our communities, how can we change the mentality of young men that going to jail is a badge of honor?” asked another member of the audience.

“We have to find out what our boys want to do. Every little boy wants to do something, we just haven’t figured out how to crack that dream,” Dutton said. “By the third grade, they are already written off, they’re building the penitentiary by 17.”

“We have to find out what they really want,” Dutton said.

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