Is it possible for an actor to “steal the show” in a one-man play? If this turn of phrase is allowed in this instance, then no one does it better justice than John Douglas Thompson, who juggles three roles in Satchmo at the Waldorf: Joe Glaser, Miles Davis, and of course ol’ Satchmo himself, more commonly known to the world as Louis Armstrong. It is a delightful and revealing insight into the mind of one of the world’s most famed jazz artists.
I had the fortune of seeing the play’s premiere performance at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts. The play opens in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria. Armstrong, aged 75 years in this production, has just finished the final performance of his career. Gulping down air from his oxygen tank, he recounts episodes of his life to the audience, punctuating his jokes about incontinence and Eisenhower with hyphenated vulgarities. From the get-go, the mask of the family-friendly entertainer is removed and we see a much more real version of Satchmo, a version who swears like a sailor, smokes marijuana constantly, and slowly reveals the doubts that plagued him about his artistic choices and integrity.
Armstrong speaks at length about the contradiction, in being a beloved black entertainer, of being labeled a second-class citizen by his white audiences who at the same time fetishized everything he created and subtly underlines how painfully little has changed in today’s times. In one of the play’s more metaphysical moments, Armstrong points out how there is not a single black person in the audience. “Like a carton of eggs,” Thompson as Armstrong remarked while the attendees laughed nervously and glanced around to realize that this was, in fact, true. Such is the fate when you perform a play in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Armstrong’s desire to please both his white and black audiences remains one of the dominant themes of the play. For all his success, the play addresses a much-disputed question: did Armstrong help black Americans by soaring to the top of the charts, or did he actually set them back in his willingness to work for a predominantly white crowd? Many dismissed Armstrong as the ultimate “Uncle Tom,” and the damage is visible: towards the end of the play, Armstrong laments how not a single black fan came to “see ol’ Satchmo play for the last time.”
Thus is the tragic riddle of Armstrong’s success addressed: he was the first African-American entertainer to truly cut across the boundaries of race, yet his career ended with millions of white fans yet very few black ones. A particularly tender moment in the play offers a more childlike glimpse of Armstrong when he reveals how hurt he was by the cool reception he received from other black jazz musicians in response to his success, such as Miles Davis (also played by Thompson), who labeled Armstrong a sell-out.
The performance I attended was the world premiere of Satchmo…, which also marked the author, Terry Teachout’s, first stab at playwriting. While it is clear he is a jazz enthusiast and has done his research, his inexperience as a playwright shows on occasion. The character arcs are a tad predictable in an effort to find dramatic moments and at times border on preachy. Ultimately, the play is less about music than it is about Armstrong’s issues.
The play does provide interesting insight into a more personal side of Armstrong, focusing on the demons that plagued him, such as his doubts about the authenticity of his friendship with his manager, Joe Glaser. Nevertheless, it seems implausible, almost impossible, to have a successful play about one of history’s greatest trumpeters and yet to so rarely address his music. The audience is allowed a brief eight bars of Armstrong singing “Hello, Dolly,” but for the most part Armstrong’s music serves as a discreet background, and we the audience are never given the opportunity to have Satchmo truly reflect on it.
The slightly scattered nature of Satchmo… is not for lack of trying, and any flaws in the script are diminished by John Douglas Thompson’s magnetic acting abilities. Thompson’s performance is astonishingly brilliant and raw. He transitions seamlessly between the two dominating roles of Armstrong and Glaser, and we feel so comfortable watching him perform that never for a moment are we not there with him and believing the premise entirely. It is a marvelous exhibition of the actor’s talent. Ultimately, the play is a delight to watch, but it is saved more by Thompson’s gift as a cunning actor rather than by a rock-solid script.
Despite any flaws, the play succeeds in that any criticism of it isn’t discovered until after Thompson has taken his final bow. For the 90 minutes during which he is on stage, we are wholly and entirely enraptured by his complete embodiment of one of America’s most esteemed musicians and cannot help but feel grateful that we were taken along for the ride.