'Satchmo At The Waldorf' Shines
Having missed its celebrated off-Broadway run two years ago, I made the trip to a refurbished movie house turned socially conscious cutting-edge theater company to catch Wall Street Journal drama critic (and occasional WEEKLY STANDARD contributor) Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf. The play was as stunning as I'd heard. A soulful, nuanced snapshot of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong's late life beyond what any book-length biography could do alone, it's biographical storytelling at its best and, as such, a justification for theater—as if we needed one. I had to wonder whether the impetus for the play had been an essential something the author's earlier biography of Armstrong, and indeed the subject's life, left unresolved.
The play lives at the strained heart of a terrible knot: It opens won Louis Armstrong in the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971, in his dressing room, changing out of his tux after what would be among his last shows, performed for an all white audience. He takes breaks to suck on an oxygen tank while unburdening his life story into a portable recording system recommended by Bing Crosby, his longtime not-quite friend. Crosby never had Satchmo to his home. And neither, more significantly, did Satchmo's mob-connected manager and corrupt father figure Joe Glaser.
It's a one-man show with a brilliant Craig Wallace as Louis (that's Louis, not Louie) and Mr. Glaser (always Mr. Glaser—never Joe). And in cool modern moments, off to the side of the stage like a stuck-on memory, he also does judgmental Miles Davis in dark sunglasses—he who infamously dismissed Louis as a talented Uncle Tom. We get the sense there might be something to that dig when, not quite comfortable laughing at the painfully frank funny parts, Louis puts us—yet another mainly white audience—completely at ease. But then again of course he does: This is a world-famous entertainer, the "World's Greatest Trumpet Player" in fact. Snippets of his tape-recorded trumpet playing—Louis's favorites, "West End Blues," "What A Wonderful World"—leave us wanting more.
This finely drawn portrait at once devastates and tickles the over-sensitive modern sensibility. It might feel wrong to laugh, but that doesn't stop Louis. Next to nothing did, as we see. It seems out-of-place and unnecessary, and yet also entirely understandable, therefore, that the company chose to post a warning "Show Contains: Haze, Profanity" and to host a post-performance panel discussion to "unpack" the play's troubling themes. ("Haze" refers to the simulated clouds of cigarette smoke wafting into Louis's dressing room as play opens and "profanity" to Louis's other principal art-form. Troubling themes were "the unbalanced artist-manager relationship" but also, apparently, the fact that Louis played for white audiences and a white manager. Although, during the discussion, no one quite said so.)
Washington's Mosaic Theatre Company advertises itself as a purveyor of "powerful, transformational, socially-relevant art, producing plays by authors on the front lines of conflict zones." It's in one of those neighborhoods in transition. Nearby, next to a Popeye's, across from a used car lot, an artisanal ramen noodle shop and a divey bar with vintage arcade games together make many a hipster man-child's ideal first date. These are the "frontlines" of one type of "conflict zone" anyway.
In the debrief discussion, though, audience reactions to the troubling relationship between artist and manager hewed perhaps disappointingly to the actual story—and away from conflict zones, as if to suggest the art speaks for itself. One woman, clearly moved, took the discussion for an opportunity to pipe up what she might otherwise have said to her friends on the ride home, Why didn't he just tell him? I understand why he didn't, but… She sighed. (Spoiler alert, sort of: Joe Glaser's will denied Louis his rightful share of the management company Louis's stardom principally upheld, and Louis never knew he'd made the choice under pressure from mob bosses because Mr. Glaser never said a word.) Another woman, in a muumuu and accent scarf, appeared to understand a little better what a facilitator, here also the founder of the company, generally looks for from these talks, I for one wonder what bearing these themes have on deteriorating race relations in this country. But her train of thought didn't get much pick-up. The people wanted to talk about the play, not so much the socio-political precepts of modern progressivism. Maybe other discussions break out in fist fights; Mosaic's standard fare seeks to stretch our social justice muscles.
But in the spirit of the great Satchmo, the play shook off its safeguards. The "debrief" became a discussion of fragile human relationships and jazz. As if to prove Satchmo at the Waldorf is itself an antidote to a poisonous, possibly well-meaning tendency to carefully cushion discomfort. It's an invitation by the playwright (and biographer) to re-inherit a complicated cultural legacy in full light of complex human life—to "unpack the pain," if we really have to, with fabulous art and joyous appreciation.
In other words, if the point is the way that Louis Armstrong's unadulterated soulforce, personally and musically, could burst through any and all accompanying BS, and I argue that it is—Mosaic's piling on, unintentionally, makes that point even more manifold.