“I shit myself tonight.”
The first line spoken in Satchmo at the Waldorf, having its world premiere production currently at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer’s Playhouse, startles the audience. It grabs their attention. There are a few titters, but mostly people are startled and silent. “I shit myself tonight” is not something people expect as a first line of any play, especially one about jazz great and legendary performer Louis Armstrong. It’s not a line one expects a stylish, black tuxedo-wearing, brass trumpet-cradling, and slightly limping elderly gentleman to say.
“Ain’t that a bitch? Here I am, 70 years old, shitting myself at the Waldorf Ass-tor-ee-a.”
This is maybe a less surprising second line, but as delivered by the protean actor John Douglas Thompson as Louis—“All white folks call me Lou-EE, but it’s LEW-is, not some French pronunciation”—it is the first of many revelations, epiphanies, and blunt assessments by and about white America’s favorite trumpet player. As created by playwright Terry Teachout, director Gordon Edelstein, and—with all the sweat, spit, and soul one could hope for—actor Thompson, Satchmo at the Waldorf is as entertaining as it is intelligent and cutting. This is not a “juke box” hagiography that attracts folks with sanitized music, but a play that filled the theater with its frank look at musical genius living in a world full of strutting and fretting. If you like your theatre honest, funny, thoughtful, and memorable, Satchmo at the Waldorf presents you with “what a wonderful world,” as Louis Armstrong sings here.
Teachout has based the play on his 2009 biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. The play roils through Armstrong’s life to reveal that the man was not just a musical whiz, but a savant; you start to run out of synonyms for “genius” as the play reveals Armstrong as not just the grinning entertainer known for showy trumpet trills and the smoky rendition of “Hello, Dolly” that was so popular it knocked the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” off the top of the American charts in 1964. Armstrong knew music, and reveals a visceral understanding of it that he articulates with as much breath and soul as he used hitting those series of high “Cs.” Recounting playing with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic or Miles Davis’ admiration of Armstrong’s musical talent–“You can’t play nothing on trumpet that doesn’t come from him, not even modern shit; I can’t even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet, never”—Thompson creates an Armstrong who doesn’t get lost in the smiling, hanky waving, mugging performer America knew so well. The play’s moments when Armstrong explains and analyzes his art are reason alone for jazz aficionados and music fanciers to see it.
But it’s Satchmo at the Waldorf’s conceit—namely, that Armstrong is speaking both to his audience backstage in his Waldorf-Astoria dressing room and into the reel-to-reel tape recorder he keeps in his room —that frees Thompson to stretch his art in exploring Armstrong. (Teachout has access to Armstrong’s tapes when writing the biography.) It’s like a Shakespearean actor keeping one foot in the play’s “then and there,” and one foot in the “here and now,” with the audience taking in all the actor can share on as many levels as the actor’s talent allows.
Here Thompson shines, and I cannot imagine another actor inhabiting Armstrong, and his manager Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis, and President Eisenhower, and the other sundry characters that Thompson slips into to the soul of Armstrong’s time. Those with even a passing interest in race relations, class warfare, politics, and 20th Century history will find the play engrossing; the scenes in which Armstrong recounts his disgust at Arkansas governor Orval Faubus for refusing to desegregate Little Rock’s public schools will startle with their bluntness. “Eisenhower don’t say nothing, don’t do nothing, just sitting up in the White House on his white ass. Motherfucker. Faubus is a motherfucker, too.” When asked by a white reporter if he may substitute “an uneducated plowboy” for the offensive Anglo-Saxon imprecation for “father,” Armstrong says, “sure, ‘an uneducated plowboy . . . mother fucker,” with impeccable timing.
“I want to talk as I want . . . it’s my life, ain’t it?” Armstrong asks early in Satchmo at the Waldorf, and through Thompson, it is, and he does talk as he wants. Like any good work of art, the play will continue to grow, but see it here and see it now, because, motherfuckers, genius doesn’t get any more real than this.