“SATCHMO AT THE WALDORF” HITS A BLUE NOTE
Monday night’s performance of Satchmo at the Waldorf, the first offering in Mosaic Theater‘s second season, was memorable for many reasons. Maybe it was the fact that it was opening night and a packed house. Maybe it was the deft way in which Craig Wallace recovered seamlessly from a couple of crucial prop fails, while keeping the audience absolutely enthralled with each and every word that boomed from his chest.
The off-Broadway play, by Armstrong biographer and former New York Times and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, is the starter in the lineup for the second season of Mosaic Theater, which makes its home at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Mosaic Theater is dedicated to confronting issues about race, social relevance, and inter-sectionalism, with an ear for exciting storytelling. In short, Mosaic Theater is bringing exciting and boundary-pushing theater to our neighborhood. As my neighbor and date whispered to me before the house lights went down, “What a treat it is to have a theater like this within walking distance!”
Satchmo at the Waldorf is a one-man play: In it, we are invited into Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s dressing room after one of his nightly performances at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. It’s March of 1971 –just a few months before his death in June of that year– and Armstrong is winding down, both figuratively and literally. He is a tired old man, coming to terms with his life, his legacy, his gift, and his relationship with Joe Glaser, his Jewish manager who was both a father figure and a disappointment. As he changes out of his performing clothes and into street clothes, he bares his compression socks and his soul. During the 80-minute play, we are drawn in by the well crafted script, which deftly confronts themes of racism, classicism, oppression and our human inability to fully know what kind of pain others are carrying in their hearts: The story flows steadily, like an intimate conversation, opening our eyes to the realities of what could be called “pre-racial” America in an unrelenting voice. The audience goes along for the ride, and tense moments from Satchmo’s life are uncomfortably mirrored in an audience that, at least that night, was not much more diverse than the audiences that paid top dollar to be serenaded by Louis Armstrong back in the day. The discomfort is worth it: With the current social and political climate, it’s important not just to remember how awful things were for African-Americans back then, but also to focus on the sickening similarities to present-day America.
Craig Wallace is a pleasure to watch. Whether he’s playing Armstrong with raw earnestness (and perhaps a little too much vigor for a man who needs oxygen regularly, but hey…. suspension of disbelief); Joe Glaser with chutzpah tinged with ruefulness; or Miles Davis, providing a son-of-a-doctor rich-boy foil to Armstrong’s devastating blue-collar honesty, he is magnetic. Wallace’s use of props and body language to characterize himself thoroughly as three distinct men is seamless. And the props: My theater companion focused on a bottle of a kind of cleaner she hadn’t seen in more than forty years: A little detail that sparked memories and post-play conversations. At some point, Satchmo reaches for his aftershave. I couldn’t make out the bottle– Aqua Velva? Burma Shave?– but the way in which he gingerly picks up the bottle and applies it is so convincing, you can almost smell it. His delivery, even when faced with the characteristic problems of life in the theater, brings rich nuance: Expansive and joyous at turns, but then bitter and melancholy, Wallace’s performance makes those eighty minutes fly by and leaves you wondering what happened next.
Certainly, my next stop will be reading Teachout’s Armstrong biography, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” and go from there.