How much has SA changed? Charles S Dutton can’t wait to find out

2014-08-28 13:50

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Charles S Dutton can’t wait to see what South Africa looks like these days.

It’s been 20 years since the American actor was here, when he filmed Cry the Beloved Country. During three months of filming, Dutton used his spare time to travel “the length and breadth” of the country. Once, he tells me during a phone chat from the US, he drove from Johannesburg to Durban and fell in love with all the spectacular landscapes along the way.

Now Dutton is coming back, bringing his one-man production From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage to the Joburg Theatre early next month.

TV viewers may remember Dutton from the critically acclaimed 90s sitcom Roc in which he played Baltimore garbage collector Roc Emerson. It ran from 1991 to 1994 and earned Dutton a number of awards.

But it wasn’t always Emmy awards (he has three) and plum roles for Dutton.

When he was 17, Dutton got into a fight that turned fatal. Dutton claimed the victim had attacked him. He was convicted of manslaughter and spent seven years in prison. Months after being released, he was arrested for possessing a deadly weapon and spent another three years behind bars.

During his second stint in jail, Dutton managed to get his hands on an anthology of works by black playwrights – and his new path began.

Today, he holds a master’s degree in acting from Yale’s school of drama and counts South African luminaries like Hugh Masekela, Mbongeni Ngema and the late Miriam Makeba among his friends.

He’s excited to return to our shores and to tell his story – though he’s nervous about singing, which forms part of From Jail to Yale.

“I realise that I cannot escape my past, so instead of talking about it as I have been doing for the past 38 years, I have decided to put the story on stage. “Having started my career on stage, this makes it all the more special.”

We get talking about a story that’s still making headlines at home in the US – the murder of black teenager Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Dutton starts by saying “there is nothing new there ... it is just that the situation got played out in the media.

“I am not trying to belittle the incident; there have been many other similar situations before it and more still once all the rioting is over ... the only thing that is sad is that when all is over the same people will be left without infrastructure as we [black people] tend to tear [apart] our own neighbourhoods during riots.”

He says that even with an African-American president, Barack Obama, the issue of race remains problematic – and is actually one of the biggest issues confronting that country.

Twenty years on from his last visit, and from South Africa’s move to democracy, Dutton says he’s interested to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

“Twenty years for any country is not a long enough time to make spectacular changes, but from what have heard and seen in the media, South Africa is a great place … there are lot of things to be grateful for,” he says excitedly.

» From Jail to Yale: Serving time on stage premieres at the Joburg Theatre at 8pm on Tuesday

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