Charles S. Dutton: The Actor's Studio
The Blues serves as the musical and metaphoric backdrop on Charles S. Duttons latest big screen effort, Honeydripper [click here to read review]. When we recently spoke to Emmy Award-winning Dutton, probably best known for his title role on the hit 90s television series Roc, he had a bounty to say on the importance of music in his life. Being a two-time Tony Award winner, Duttons take on the subject resounds with authority. DX faithful, consider the first class in Acting 101 now in session
HipHopDX: What drew you to Honeydripper?
Charles S. Dutton: John Sayles is one of the last great independent filmmakers. So, his movies are always interesting. Actors like to act with directors like him. You know theyre not big, commercial films but theyre always good scripts and good stories and great characters. Ive been wanting to work with John for a while, but I was never really available when he called on other pictures. I was off doing something else. That and the fact that Danny Glover and I have known each other for nearly 30 years and have never worked together- in a play or anything. This is actually our first time ever working together. When I knew Danny was attached, I said, "Okay, this will be great." Also, when I read the script, it was just a great story. It was really vivid characters. You have to make them vivid. And John Sayles is a good human being. He and his wife Maggie are really good people. You dont make any money doing a John Sayles movie or any independent movie, for that matter. You stay in shitty conditions. You stay in ugly, dirty, old trailers or run-down hotels where anybody can knock on the door anytime, day or night. [Fans] ask, Can I have your autograph? at three in the morning.
DX: This movie has some very strong musical elements to it. And if I recall correctly, so too did your show. Charles, exactly what role does music play in your life?
CD: Its interesting that you ask that question. Any good actor, or any actor that thinks hes good, has to be in love with music. You cant be a good actor unless you have a real appreciation for it. There are times when Im on the stage and I envision myself as Marvin Gaye or a soul singer. The crowd is enraptured. But Im not singing; Im acting. Thats the kind of image I do for it. Or, when Im getting ready to come on, Ill listen to all kinds of stuff. Ill listen to Nina Simone or some old school like The Miracles. Not Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, but The Miracles. I just sort of get an appreciation for rhythm and beat into your head. When you go out to perform, thats kind of like what youre doing.
In Ma Raineys Black Bottom, I had to learn to play the trumpet. Its interesting because that character I played, and all of the players in the band, was an extension of the instrument. Slow Drag, the bass player, was the easy-going, mellow guy, so he was an extension of the bass. Toledo was the most intelligent band member. He was the only one that could read, so he was the piano player. The piano has more keys than any other instrument. Cutler, the leader of the band, was the guitar player and he held the beat together. And Levy, the young, hot-headed band member, played the trumpet. The trumpet, as you know, is loud and brass. But even as a young theater actor, I used to listen to Mozart or Bach or Shubert and just listen to the way the music changed. It went this way and that way and this way. Thats the way a performance on the stage should be. It should be totally unpredictable, totally spontaneous. I started my career off in the theater with August Wilson, whose plays are motivated by music, particularly the blues. It all fell into place. Even today, when I listen to a certain song, I say, The next time Im on a stage, thats going to be my theme, motivational song backstage. Every good actor has to love and appreciate music. All kinds. It doesnt have to be old-school stuff; it can be anything. When this role came in, I was almost tempted to ask John I punked out in the end- to let me play [the guitar]. But then I thought, Well, actually the character shouldnt be able to play it. He shouldnt be able to just pick up the guitar and play it. Dannys character would have had me up there playing it. Acting and music go hand-in-hand, I think.
DX: Theater seems to capture black life in a way that movies cant. Do you get more leeway in the theater? Movies tend to fail us.
CD: Putting it bluntly, its halfway less racist [on Broadway]. They dont call it the "Great White Way" for nothing. The only time youd get a black drama there was the occasional August Wilson play. You gotta look at it from a historical perspective. A Raisin in the Sun, in 1959, was the first black drama ever on Broadway. From 59 up until the mid 60s, it was a long time before another drama came. Lorraine Hansberys second play, The Sign in Sidney Brusteins Window, had a brief stint on Broadway. From a regional theater point of view, or at least a producing point of view, the theater has always been much more inviting and receptive to African-American themed projects than Hollywood has. Hollywood has a history of it, but we all know that history of buffoons, clowns, etc. On the one hand, Hollywood is constantly searching for the next Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz, but theyre never searching for that next person if theyre African American. Theyre not searching for the next Denzel. Theyre not searching for the next so-and-so until 10 or 15 years later and you get someone to take that spot. You could be a great director, male or female, and that door in Hollywood may not open. But if youre a great writer in the theater, youll eventually find a home. It may not be immediately on Broadway, but it will be in a regional theater somewhere. You might hone your craft thousands of miles away from where you live. You might live in New York and your play opens in a small theater in San Francisco. Then it moves on from there to there. The regional theater people get to see it and say, Oh, this is a great piece of work. August Wilson is a prime example. The funny thing about it is that all of August Wilsons plays started in the cradle of white theater practitioners. They didnt direct them, but thats where he sent them to. They say it. I used to tell August this all the time: Had you sent this [play] to a black organization, we might not have ever heard of you. I dont mean that disparagingly; they just didnt have the scope to get August out the way August needed to be gotten out.
DX: Augusts plays seemed to be something for everybody.
CD: They were American plays. Chitlin circuit plays are chitlin circuit plays. A Latino person could sit in one of [Wilsons] plays and say, Thats my grandmother. Thats my aunt. Thats my uncle. A Chinese person could say, Thats my grandfathers experience when he got over to America. Lay persons, theatergoers, everyone gets August Wilson. The problem with August Wilsons plays is this. The legacy is there. Hes got a canon of plays that will for another 200 years. Just like the Irish have their canon of plays and the English have their canon of plays. The Russians have their canon of plays. The Scottish have their canon of plays. Now African Americans have their canon of plays10 plays covering 100 years. The legacy is there. What Im a little afraid of is the doing of the legacy. What I mean by the doing of the legacy is that the younger generation coming and attempting Augusts plays as actors and directors are missing one important element of Augusts work. Every great playwright has some kind of genius in their writing. Augusts genius is that his plays and all of his characters are a fine line between reality and farce. If you cross that line into farce then August Wilsons plays can actually become derogatory about black people, or the characters can become buffoonish or overdone. Serious characters get to become fun. The audience laughs. And you know how we are as an audience! Black folks wanna laugh at every damn thing- even when it dont need to be laughed at. You can have a serious moment but [the audience is thinking], Dont make me think. Dont show me no pain. I came here to be entertained. I came here to laugh. I dont wanna feel nothing. What happens is that actors and directors have to realize Augusts genius. Its something as simple as this. Ive seen productions of Ma Raineys Black Bottom where the actor or the director chooses to have the character of Levy carry a switchblade instead of a pocket knife. When you give him a switchblade, it totally turns the play to the opposite end of what August intended it to be. A switchblade is for someone looking to cut somebody. A pocketknife is a tool. This is 1927. Everybody got one. You can open a can of beans with a pocketknife. You aint gonna open no beans with a switchblade cause youre scared youre going to bend it. You stick that in somebody. In The Piano Lesson, for example, there are three major racial stereotypes: niggas with watermelons; niggas in tight shoes; and Oh Lawd, theres a ghost upstairs. You put all three of them together and you got Amos & Andy. You have to be extremely careful with Augusts works. Even the word nigga. Hes the only playwright in modern literature to use the word so much outside of the Hip Hop world. Only one time in Ma Raineys Black Bottom is it used in a negative or aggressive way- although they might say the word 35 times. This is what it is in a nutshell: Most black actors and black directors think, when it comes to August Wilson, that, Hes black. We black. The playwrights black. The directors black. The stage managers black. One of the producers black. Lets just be black and do it. It aint that mundane. It aint that easy. It aint that simplified. It aint that under-complicated. August Wilsons work is classic material. Ive known black actors to minimize his work and then go up and do Shakespeare and talk about how intellectual it is for half an hour around some white folks. Get around some black folks and talk about August Wilson and, basically, its simple, something to do.
DX: You mentioned how black audiences, in general, dont want to think while being entertained. Is that why movies like The Great Debaters arent commercial successes?
CD: You cant really explain that aspect of our life and our culture without really including so many things that have changed with us over the last 40, 50 years. The black community wouldnt be where we are today if we still had the mentality and perseverance and outlook that we had 50 years ago. I say this all the time, as great as integration was, on one level it was the worst thing to ever happen to black people in America. When you talk about the lack of attention to those kind of things and that kind of stimulus, then you gotta talk about wanting to better your community and on and on. Its all the same thing. You cant take the arts and excise it from all the other problems. Its all related.
But to answer your question, in a general sense, this picture is not going to get the press and the promotion and the saturation that First Sunday will get. If they made a movie called Pickaninnies in Heaven and promoted it, wed still go and see it. Somebody would be up there laughing. Man, that was some funny shit! But then, if you did a movie about Hannibal, the only way it would draw is if you had Denzel [Washington] on an elephant and Al Pacino or Russell Crowe behind him on another elephant for it to become a successful film. Its frustrating. A film like this should be devoured; just in the classical nature of it. Yaya [DaCosta, Honeydripper costar] and I were talking earlier. There was one review I read in New York that was kinda accusing Sayles of playing to stereotypes in this movie with the juke joint guys with the knife and the gun. You got the blind blues sage. Characters weve seen before. My feeling about stereotypes is this: Theres nothing inheritably wrong with stereotypes; its what you do with them. There are porters, butlers, maids and shoeshine boys. People got cut. I got shot in a damn juke joint in 1967. I know what its like in a juke joint. Those characters are real. You [cant] demean them Im not talking about the director doing it; even the actors themselves. Youve got to approach every role with some dignity. The director cant say, Can you play it with dignity? Imagine that. Youve got to start with that. Everything else will fall into place. Its the sign of the times. If more of us, young and old, were in tune to appreciate the off-line films, not the big studio blockbusters, [that would help]. If you put more performing arts programs in the inner cities instead of bars and fried chicken joints, the crime would go down. Thats the power of the arts. The arts change peoples lives. They really do. If you had more of those, youd have less violence and crime. Youd still have all your problems but youd have less of them. I wish I had a good answer for that. Im not degrading any of the chitlin circuit plays or any of that. That stuff has its place. People pay to see that. They pay to see that but wont go see something on Broadway. Audiences are not born. Nobodys born with culture. Nobody is innately cultured. Every Asian person that can play a violin, it was taught to them. They were exposed to it from childhood. They got an appreciation for it. Its the same way with black kids can get that appreciation for the arts or anything else. If you got a kid who sits around in school and doesnt do anything, and then you say, What are your interests? They might say, Well, I like to play with numbers. To me, that says grab that kid and take him down to Wall Street. Take him down to Wall Street and ask, Is this what youre talking about? I bet youll find what theyre really interested in if you simply ask them. Sometimes its not about the three Rs. Sometimes its about whats in the person, whats in the human being. Exploit that and the three Rs will come because theyre excited about something.