It was 2003 and the television star of "Roc" was reprising on Broadway the role of trumpet player Levee in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a part he had created in 1984. He stated in his remarkable Playbill bio: "I have done the theatre some service, and they know it...No more of that!" But Dutton is, apparently, having some more of that. Starting April 24, he will be essaying the monumental role of Willy Loman in the Yale Repertory Theatre staging of Death of a Salesman, directed by James Bundy. Dutton talked to Playbill.com about his "unretirement" and what it means to fall back in love with acting.
Playbill.com: How did this project come about?
Charles Dutton: Well, it was literally a five-year conversation. At the time, I really had no interest in doing another play.
Playbill.com: When you did Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Broadway in 2003, you said it was your farewell to the stage.
CD: That was how I felt, and that was the retirement that I was supposed to take. This conversation with [James] Bundy happened on a lot of different levels, about how I could help the school [Yale, which Dutton attended], how I could be involved in the drama school. Then, what solidified a decision to go back this time around was a long conversation with Lloyd Richards over lunch before he passed, and right after August Wilson passed, in March or April of 2006. He told me that I shouldn't waste my best theatre years, and that I had let several of them go from 1990 to 2003, and that I shouldn't waste any more of them. And when Lloyd speaks, you kind of listen. At that point, I decided to "un-retire." Then the conversations with Bundy really started to heat up, particularly after Lloyd passed. We talked about a lot of plays: Long Day's Journey, Iceman Cometh, King Lear.
Playbill.com: You were discussing classics.
CD: It was purely discussions. I don't remember if James mentioned Miller or I mentioned it — and the interesting thing is I have never in my life seen Death of a Salesman. I saw about three minutes of the last scene of the Dustin Hoffman PBS movie version years ago, flipping through the channels one night. I didn't see the Hoffman stage production. I didn't see the Brian Dennehy production. But I've read the play many times. Just from reading it, you go into it as a student with the instruction that this is a classic American play. You read it with that influence in mind. I never really got the play when I read it, so it didn't seem as difficult a play as many of the other classics. Until I'm in rehearsal. Now I'm saying, "What the hell did I get myself into?" (Laughs) It's an extremely difficult play and an extremely difficult character. But I'm enjoying the heck out of it, and it's good to be back.
Playbill.com: Did you have a hand in putting together the cast?
CD: The idea of the African-American cast came later in the discussions. We talked about certain cast members, certain Lindas. I even had a couple conversations with Meryl Streep about it, and scheduling wouldn't allow her to do it. As we went along, we thought how interesting it would be to do an African-American cast. At that point, we weren't concerned about going with names. We just wanted to get really good actors. We wanted to be leery of the Hollywood types, per se. I don't mean that as a negative. But just because they're on the screen doesn't mean they can do it on the stage. That's what we've done. We have a terrific cast. Playbill.com: With an African-American cast, is it the same play, or are there somewhat different resonances?
CD: Well, I happen to think it's the same play. The minute you start saying let's cut this line and that line for an African-American cast, then you might as well cut the whole darn play and rewrite it. The fact of the matter is there's always a suspension of disbelief in every play, so the reality is that a black Willy Loman would not have been hanging out at Slattery's in Boston in 1949. He'd have been hung. To be rewritten you'd be in Roxbury somewhere. But who would bother to do that? I look at this not as a black-cast version. I look at it as a black cast in Arthur Miller's play. So you get much more universality. After all, there were hundreds of thousands of middle-class black people in the 1940s.
Playbill.com: So, will this performance count as your farewell to the theatre now, or do you never say never now?
CD: I'm never going to say never now. I really mean it. I did promise Lloyd, and I meant that. I might have acted a little hastily in the Ma Rainey statement, but it had less to do with the production. To remain in the theatre, you have to be in love with acting. I fell out of love with acting. You do not have to love acting to do television and films. When you're doing television, you're doing a character that's as boring as hell. You do the same thing every week, the same facial expression, whether it's a half-hour or an hour. You sell the brand that the network wants to sell of that particular show. That's why I don't direct episodic television, because you can't get the actors to act. I'll direct cable.
Playbill.com: What made you fall out of love with acting in the first place?
CD: It was purely the intoxication of Hollywood. I will freely admit it. It was not necessarily the money, but the freedom and the power. I was pretty much given free reign when I got out there, my own show and tons of things in development. It's a different kind of headset. Instead of rehearsals, you're in meetings. You're hiring and firing. You're overseeing something from point A to point Z. In film and television, you only act for a few minutes at a time, and then you're in your trailer, waiting. So, it's an easier life. It is. It's a more lucrative life. It's Los Angeles. It's sunny California. It's palm trees. You've got a pool in your backyard. Everybody gets consumed by it. Everybody who's left the theatre and gone to Los Angeles will tell you the same thing, not publicly but privately. I lost a respect for the training. Not respect, but I forgot about the intensity of the training I got. I tried to leverage it a bit. We did a whole season of "Roc" live. But as the years went, you get fat and lazy, and you don't feel like working that hard. Theatre is like digging your ditch for a living.
Playbill.com: But you're working hard now, aren't you?
CD: Oh, man. Like never before. And the irony of it all is that, when you're a young actor, you say "I can't wait to play Willy Loman and King Lear." When you're able to do it, you say, "Oh, man!" You get a sense of mortality.