IN THE ’90s there were several sitcoms that gave us good memories. These included Cosby, Family Matters and Martin. Of these, none really tackled sociopolitical issues the way Roc did. Starring Charles S Dutton, the show had deeper meaning than just silly comedy.
“I was never the one to do the buffoonery kind of comedy. In Roc we tried to send messages every week and so we were viewed as controversial. In my opinion we were very powerful and personally I felt that since we are only on the planet for a few seconds, I want to say something,” said Dutton.
“I just did not want to just say something for the sake of saying it, but I wanted to make a point. I knew the show would not run forever and if it was finally off the air and I was watching it five years down the line, I don’t want to be embarrassed by it. Instead I want to feel that it was compelling then and still compelling today,” added Dutton.
He knew he was taking part in a stand against the status quo and sooner or later the powers that be would bite back.
“Many people don’t know this but we only ran for three seasons and then the show was cancelled. I think it was simply cut because of the challenges that we were making. It’s very difficult for them to let you do that kind of TV. If you are funny with no messages and stuff like that, then it’s fine,” he said.
At the time of Roc’s success, with him bringing black people’s lives to the forefront, another successful show was The Cosby Show which painted a different picture.
“The Cosby Show was different because Bill Cosby was already a star. The powers that be had already accepted him in. Roc on the other hand was new, dealing with the opposite of what Cosby was handling. We looked at aspects like black-on-black crime, drugs and all the subjects The Cosby Show didn’t cover,” explained Dutton.
His need to say something whenever he gets an opportunity is why Dutton will be coming to the country to showcase his work for the Arts Alive festival. You have seen him on TV and in several films but chances are you have not seen him on stage before, which is why you need to see his one-man show, From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on State.
“It’s a narrative of my life story. I am telling the story from my violent youth where I have been shot, stabbed and went to juvenile jail. From 12 to 26 I was in and out of jail and in 1972 I wrote a play when I was in jail,” explained Dutton.
At his darkest hour in that year, when he had been involved in some in-house misbehaviour while he was in prison, Dutton faced even more stringent conditions. “I was locked in isolation and I was allowed to take one book. A friend set me up with a book of poetry that I didn’t even want to read. I was only interested in reading revolutionary material, I wanted to burn the prison down. I didn’t want to read some poem. I read the poems from Douglas Turner Ward’s comedy A Day of Absence and they changed my way of thinking as they were political satire. I promised myself that when I got out of the hole, I was going to get 10 of the craziest guys I knew in prison and we’d start a drama group. When it actually happened, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said Dutton.
On his South African tour, Dutton will involve some local talent.
“The narrative will not have any props or anything. I pretty much stand and just tell the story the best way I can. I couldn’t come to SA and not use one South African actress so Shoki Mokgapa will be joining me.”
• Charles S Dutton’s From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on State at Arts Alive Festival from September 2 to 6, Joburg Theatre. Tickets R200 at the venue.