Into the dressing room and straight to the oxygen tank, 70 year old Louis Armstrong, (John Douglas Thompson) dons the mask, sucks greedily, making the audience wait. Silence, punctuated by periodic gasps, extends uncomfortably.
We watch him shift his weight on the couch from arthritic hip to arthritic hip. These two gestures, slow and deliberate, wind up the energy that carries this 90-minute gem that just opened at the Geary Theatre.
Satchmo at the Waldorf has been getting a lot of hype… and it’s worth every bit of coverage. John Douglas Thompson is the closest that we can come to being inside that voice, simultaneously gravely and mellifluent.
With the TheatreWorks’ production of Hershey Felder’s Irving Berlin and ACT’s Satchmo both on Bay Area stages right now, we’re homing back to musicians whose presence hovers at the remote edges of our collective memory. Coincidence? Maybe, but I’d like to think that by looking at the cultural cradle that these greats rock out of, we reconstitute ourselves again, not as polarized ions, clinging to one positive or negative charge, but as whole people. After all, how many musicians boast albums titled with superlatives like “Best of the 20th Century” (Armstrong) or are recognized as “America’s Mozart” (Berlin)? That’s the place to which that this play takes you.
Satchmo returns the audience to that cultural cradle, complete with competing aesthetics, influences, and contradictions informing Armstrong’s wrap-around smile and trumpet. For example, unless you’ve been binge watching The Sopranos again or caught the Godfather reruns, it’s easy to forget the presence of organized crime at the edge of so much music up through the 60’s. Likewise, we forget there wasn’t a peace sign between the conflicting perspectives of pop and jazz
In this one-man show, John Douglas Thompson alternately becomes Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, a too-cool-for-Armstrong Miles Davis, and of course, Armstrong himself.
Contradictions of race are text and subtext in this play. Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, shielded Armstrong from organized crime – at a price that becomes evident only after Glaser’s death. The relationship between the two was more complicated than, say, that between Sopranos’ character Hesh Rabkin, and the black groups who he routinely cheated out of royalties. The dynamic between Armstrong and Glaser was similar, but different, as Armstrong routinely wore a magen David (star of David) around his neck, because the Jews were good to him, and, in turn, Glaser referred to him as a son.
Contradictions of race are text and subtext in this play.
If Glaser shielded Armstrong (at least during his lifetime), Miles damned him as a sell-out, an uncle Tom, as did fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. We see the aging Armstrong, not with his signature wrap-around smile, but poised between his black critics, and white manager. Between these poles, Satchmo reveals all the forces that are brought to bear in this particular dressing room moment.
ACT puts out a collection of essays called Words on Plays for almost every play. While uniformly excellent, the volume that accompanies Satchmo is worth getting your hands on, if only because so much of the context – grows ever distant to us.
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays the Geary Theatre through February 7th.