Satchmo at the Waldorf
by Terry Teachout
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring John Douglas Thompson
American Conservatory Theatre
January 13- February 7, 2016
Writer Terry Teachout wasn’t content with just writing a one-person biography of American Jazz legend Louis Armstrong starring the incomparable John Douglas Thompson. Satchmo at the Waldorf elevates the genre by seamlessly interweaving Thompson as the aged, near death Armstrong, as well as his feisty gang-related Manager Joe Glaser and the upcoming rebellious trumpeter Miles Davis. It’s a tour-de-force for Obie Award winner Thompson, who channels Armstrong’s desire to entertain, his views on racism and both his bitterness and resignation to his life achievements and failures.
Hunched over, wheezing and hobbled, Thompson’s complex Armstrong is much more than the smile and handkerchief. Proud and humbled at the same time, we see a strong generous man who broke all the race barriers in the time of Jim Crow, who surrendered his faith and financial matters to an unscrupulous manager and was turned on by the new young generation of musicians for whom he paved the way.
As Joe Glaser, Thompson is fiery, powerful and conflicted. A mob affiliated Jew from Chicago, he takes Armstrong under his wing and makes him a star. There’s a love/hate relationship between the two and through Teachout’s richly imagined script, we see are treated to the rational each man delivers for why they maintained their dysfunctional relationship. As Miles Davis, Thompson is the epitome of the angry, rebellious new Black Man, who sees the aged Armstrong as a needless remembrance of Uncle Tomism. His disdain is visceral and condemning and pains Armstrong to the core of his being.
The character changes, aided by Kevin Adams lighting design, are dramatic and affecting. Thompson changes his physical stature and voice inflection on a dime, spitting out hatred as Davis, brash voraciousness as Glaser and the humorous winning self-acceptance of Armstrong. Teachout’s script is bold and clever, never flinching from tackling the hard, real issues of Armstrong’s day. It’s a complex picture that illuminates tough issues through the story of a beloved American icon. Part minstrel, clown, innovator, actor, activist, performer – Armstrong is more than the sum of his parts. Satchmo at the Waldorf gives us a dynamic glimpse into the thinking of the man behind the legend and with Thompson’s bravura performance, its theatre at its finest.