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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019
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'Roc' On A Roll

He has the acting chops. We know that much about Charles S. Dutton, the charismatic, bald and burly performer whose awarding-winning work has appeared on television and stage and in the movies. But here's what you may not know about the man: He was in and out of prison from his late teens to his late 20s, serving time for murder, assault on an officer and possession of a deadly weapon. "I do remember my 16th year because that was about the only year I didn't go to jail in my youth," Dutton says during a recent visit to Tampa. "The Motown songs, everything. That was a good year." But in his angry, troubled youth, there weren't many good years for "Roc," a nickname he took as an amateur boxer and the title of his 1991-94 Fox television sitcom about a Baltimore sanitation worker.
Life took a dramatic turn for Dutton in his last prison stint. Four years into an eight-year sentence, he was stabbed in the neck by a fellow inmate with an ice pick. After a 10-day stay in the hospital where he nearly died, the warden brought both men to his office and flipped a coin. "Heads, and you're transferred out of here, Dutton. Tails, you're out of here, Johnson," the warden said. It came up heads. And Dutton was off to another facility to finish out his term. He calls it divine intervention. "That's when all these wonderful things began happening," he says. "A girlfriend sent me an anthology of plays. I never read a play in my life, never directed one, never acted in one. But something about this caught my attention." Acting Out - In A Good Way Dutton was so inspired that he started a drama group with 10 of the "craziest guys in prison." During a December 1973 prison talent show, in the middle of a speech his character was making, Dutton was transformed. "I felt this thing come over me," he recalls. "I wasn't acting anymore. It was like I had just discovered what I was born to do while I'm on this planet. It was like a force telling me, 'I'm showing you the light; this is your gift.'" From that moment forward, his purpose revealed, Dutton was a changed man. He told his prison buddies that he was no longer available for rumbles or troublemaking. He was going to stay straight and stay clean. And as soon as he was released, he would pursue this newfound love of acting. Better yet, he says, "I now had God in my life, too." That gave him the compass he says he so sorely needed. Dutton kept his word. While finishing his sentence, he got his high school equivalency diploma and completed a two-year college program. After his release, he enrolled as a drama major at Baltimore's Towson State University, then was accepted at the prestigious Yale School of Drama in 1978. The rest is history. "Roc," 55, is an accomplished performer with an impressive resume. He has received two Tony nominations for best actor ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Piano Lesson"), Emmys for roles in "The Practice" and "Without a Trace" and an Emmy for directing the TV miniseries "The Corner." His Fox sitcom gave him a popular fan base; among his peers, he's highly respected. But he hasn't forgotten where he came from and how close he was to going nowhere. That's what brings Dutton to Tampa next week. Show Benefits Abe Brown Ministries He's bringing his show "An Act for Humanity: From Jail to Yale" to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Friday and Nov. 10 to benefit Abe Brown Ministries. The local charity trains offenders and ex-offenders to live productive lives. The production is sponsored by TrainingU, a Bay area company that teaches skills in the construction trades, hospitality and other high-demand industries, and Brooks 55 Labor, which links people with jobs in the community. (The "Brooks" in the company's name belongs to Tampa Bay Buccaneer Derrick Brooks.) Dutton describes his show as a "rollicking good time." "It's funny, it's entertaining, and it's riveting," he says. "It's about how I got to this point in my career, interspersed with a backdrop of great scenes and monologues by famous playwrights." Why do this benefit for the Tampa ministry? Dutton says it was a no-brainer. Once he met Brown, the former Hillsborough High School football coach who founded the prison ministry and pastors First Baptist Church of College Hill, he was sold on helping out. "Rev. Brown is someone who is genuine about helping people and getting people to discover their humanity. With him, you feel the light of God," Dutton says. "It would be hard to say no to him. This kind of mission he does takes money." Helping Offenders A Good Investment Money that's not always easy to raise. Dutton is aware that in these economic times, donating to programs that help ex-offenders is not a priority, either for the government or private benefactors. But he maintains that's being shortsighted. "They're going to end up back on the street," he says. "Who would you rather deal with - someone who has rediscovered his humanity or something who is still pissed off?" The Rev. Wayne Tiggett, who heads the ministry's transitional living program, says Dutton's story gives the men "real hope" that they can walk in the plan and purpose that God has for their lives. "His story is perfect for our mission," Tiggett says. "He provides a lot of inspiration and motivation for our guys. They have a tremendous amount of respect for him." In the world according to Dutton, the inner cities would be a lot better off with fewer bars and more acting, dance and art programs. He believes the crime rate would plummet and broken souls would be whole again if people just had better options. And frankly, this country would be a lot better off with more actors like Dutton who shun Hollywood self-centeredness and give so much of themselves to make the world a better place. Charles S. Dutton talks with Michelle Bearden on her "Keeping the Faith" segment at 9 a.m. Sunday on WFLA-TV. She can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 259-7613. WHAT: "From Jail to Yale," a humorous, entertaining look at actor Charles S. Dutton's life WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 WHERE: Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Ferguson Hall, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa TICKETS: $20, $25 and $35; abebrown.org or (813) 247-3285
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