Once upon a time he was a ne’er do well. He was called ‘Roc’ when he hung out with the proverbial wrong crowd on the streets of Baltimore. Dutton chose not to finish high school. Instead, he became learned in the school of hard knocks.
He hasn’t shied away from talking about his unsavory past. In fact when in Pittsburgh on April 25 at the August Wilson Center, he spoke at length about how he was able to turn his life around. The A. Philip Randolph Institute Pittsburgh Chapter and the United Steelworkers brought him to town for their awards reception. After the reception he delighted everyone with a theatrical performance of “From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage.” It was an entertaining and enlightening blend of straight talk and humor about his life mixed in with commentary on hot button issues.
On stage Dutton talked about how he first went to prison at 17 years old for a manslaughter conviction. He claimed he got into a fight to defend himself. Unfortunately, the young man he fought died. A judge sentenced him to two years behind bars.
Dutton had the audience spellbound by his story. After being released from prison for only just a few months, he was convicted of possessing a deadly weapon. That conviction put him back in prison for three more years.
This time imprisonment turned his life around. He received his high school equivalency degree or GED in prison and started a drama group there. When he left prison he went on to become a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.
After his presentation, Dutton talked to EURweb correspondent Tene‘ Croom. When asked what advice he would give to young people to stay out of jail and not have to learn lessons the hard way like he did, Dutton said:
“Simply listen to good advice. Simply listen to positive people. The minute you start listening to positive people all of that negative karma goes away. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in the penitentiary then don’t do the things that get you there. Now I know that’s easy to say. You know what. That’s the struggle you have.”
He looks back at his life and what he’s achieved and pulls no punches about how he’s gotten where he is today.
“My success was not easy by a long shot. I had to work for it every day of it. So, you know for all of the young guys who are in jail, my main thing particularly the 16, 17, 18 year olds, don’t look up when you’re 35 still in the penitentiary and then decide you know I should have listened to my mom. I should have listened to my uncle. Do it when you’re 16. Once you go to prison, believe it, particularly in this day and age, when you get a prison record your life is kind of ruined. With the work force with everything else, there are so much negative energy; people’s ideas about ex-cons, you’ve got to avoid it.”
He’s perhaps best known for portraying Baltimore garbage collector Roc Emerson in the popular TV series “Roc.” He’s also wowed audiences on Broadway with his collaborations with playwright August Wilson, whom he spoke fondly about that night.
He was nominated for a Tony Award portraying Slow Drag in Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and then garnered another Tony nomination as Lymon in the Wilson play, “The Piano Lesson.” He revived the role of Lymon for a teleplay.
Dutton has also been busy making movies for the big screen. In 2012 he appeared in, among other films, “LUV,” starring rapper/actor Common and “Least Among Saints.”