We are looking at a dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC after Louis Armstrong has completed a show. It's March 1971, several months before his death, and it is the setting for Satchmo At The Waldorf which we saw at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven last night. If you have a chance, go. The play has received very positive reviews and its New Haven run was just extended until November 11 before it moves on to Philadelphia.
Satchmo is the first play written by Terry Teachout, the author of Pops, the wonderful 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong - a book that stirred my renewed interest in Armstrong and his music (see the post Pops). He's now taken the unusual step for a theater critic (he writes for the Wall St Journal) of becoming a playwright. (Teachout)
Satchmo is a one-actor, ninety minute piece. The Armstrong portrayed is more than just the smiling performer you remember from his onstage appearances. By turns he is funny, poignant and angry. It's hard to pull off a one-actor play and even harder when the one-actor is playing two very different characters but it works because the actor, John Douglas Thompson, is extraordinary. Thompson is Armstrong and also his white mob-connected manager of four decades, Joe Glaser, and it is the complicated relationship between the two that is at the heart of the show. The first time Thompson transitioned in a heartbeat from being Armstrong to being Glaser was stunning and you could almost hear the collective astonishment of the audience. Seamlessly transforming himself back and forth he embodied Armstrong and Glaser in a way that conveyed their bond with all of its mixture of love, calculation, suspicion, exasperation and anger. (John Douglas Thompson)
Before seeing the show I was a little worried that the Armstrong story could come off as stiff and unnatural in a theatre setting but I (and it looked like everyone else) was riveted for the entire time by a compelling and touching script and performance.
Teachout decided to write the play because it gave him more freedom to write about this relationship than he had as a biographer:
"Much of what he and Glaser say in the play derives from things that they said in real life, and the way in which both men talk on stage is an accurate portrayal of their habits of speech . . . But the play is still a work of fiction, albeit one that is freely based on fact. It's an attempt to suggest the nature of their personal relationship, which was so fraught with tension that no mere biographer, obligated as he is to stick to the factual record, could hope to do more than hint at its endless subtleties. Fictionalizing that relationship has freed me to speculate about things that I cannot know for sure but have good reason to suspect."(Armstrong & Glaser)
Along the way, Thompson also briefly transforms into a third character, Miles Davis. Davis appreciated Armstrong's contributions to jazz but was brutally critical of what he saw as Louis' backwards attitudes about race. Armstrong, in turn, was enraged by Miles' criticism.
Miles Davis and Glaser are the bookends of the racial tensions that existed throughout Louis Armstrong's career. In the latter part of his career, Armstrong felt he lost his black audience, playing almost exclusively to whites. This is made good use of in Satchmo, when Armstrong is talking about this phenomenon and then looks out at us and remarks that we are an all-white audience. And in the Armstrong-Glaser association how much of their interaction was driven by the conventions of race in mid-century America? Was Glaser ever Armstrong's friend? All of this is unflinchingly examined in Satchmo yet in a way that is consistent with the man portrayed by Teachout in Pops, a man who "lived life in a major key". I left with a smile on my face.