Sunday, September 26, 2010
I went to a performance entitled From Jail to Yale on September 24th starring Charles S. Dutton, who many of us would fondly know as Roc from the old TV show about the garbage man and his family. (Interesting tidbit: Roc is Dutton’s real nickname. They named the show after him.) The event, held in support of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, was at the Murphy Fine Arts Theatre at Morgan State University and free to students (which was a good thing; otherwise I would not have been able to see it).
The performance started off with Dutton relating an account of his own life experiences since “Jail to Yale” is his own true story. That to me was certainly the most entertaining part of the play. His is a truly inspiring story. However, trained in classical theatre, he included excerpts of such timeless works as Death of a Salesman, Richard III and King Lear. He did the scenes with Morgan’s own Theatre majors, which was both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing about that is that the students had the valuable experience of working with and learning from a professional, well-trained actor. The bad thing is one could see the glaring difference between the students and the professional. One thing I learned from watching this play though, diction makes all the difference when performing Shakespeare.
On that note, Charles Dutton did manage to alter my perspective on Shakespeare, for which I am sincerely grateful. Dutton spoke about the African-American actors of history performing Shakespeare during racially charged times. He said that the reason they performed Shakespeare so well is because they identified with it – Shakespeare wrote for the commoners. I can honestly say I never identified with Shakespeare, at least on stage. I could read it and appreciate the stories being told, but Shakespearean plays never quite impressed me the way I usually see them performed. Dutton, however was able to use Shakespeare’s old-English lines, usually difficult to swallow, and infuse all the real emotion, and storytelling into them in the way only an actor of his caliber can. He wasn’t reciting Shakespeare. He was saying the words as they were meant to be said. This is the first time I’ve heard an audience react to Shakespearean insults with the same “Oooooo” and “Dang!” as a low-blow during a catfight.
I have a new appreciation for the power of the actor thanks to Dutton. The actor has the power to bring characters to life, to translate a story into reality, to bring the audience into the drama: make them feel the pain of loss, the glory of triumph, or the burn of a brutal Shakespearean insult. Or the actor has the power to make a story fall flat. I hope the theatre students, my talented Morgan counterparts, learned this well from Mr. Dutton. I hope they learned their power as actors to bring a storyteller’s vision to life. Most of all, I hope they learn the importance of diction.