'Satchmo' in D.C.
If you’re a denizen of D.C. (or visiting here) looking for something smart to distract you from the presidential race—and who isn't?—you're in luck. Not only has Satchmo at the Waldorf, a play by longtime Scrapbook friend and TWS contributor Terry Teachout, opened in Washington; less than two weeks into its run, Mosaic Theater Company has announced that it's extending the production to October 2. This is the one politically charged event in Washington this season you won't want to miss.
The one-man, one-act show has a small set but a huge heart. The action takes place in a dressing room backstage at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in March 1971, though it's more accurate to say the real drama happens inside the characters themselves. Louis Armstrong, composer, trumpeter, singer, and actor—Teachout calls him "the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century"—has just given what will be his last public concert. Only four months away from death, the weakened but still-powerful performer reflects on his five-decade career and the man who, more than anyone except Armstrong himself, made it happen.
The trumpeter found himself in a bit of a pickle in 1935 when a mob-connected New York nightclub owner saw his rising success, regretted firing him, and sent a tough to drag him back from Chicago. Armstrong called up Joe Glaser, a Jew who'd managed a nightclub owned by Al Capone that he'd played years before. Glaser knew some toughs of his own; he stopped the harassment and managed Armstrong until Glaser's death in 1969. He helped persuade Armstrong to drop the scatting and use his singular voice to better effect in popular songs like "What a Wonderful World" and "Hello, Dolly!" and made them both rich. But Armstrong's popularity among white Americans got him called an Uncle Tom by a younger generation of black musicians who felt that with fame came a certain political responsibility.
Those are the truths on which the show is based—Teachout calls it "a work of fiction, freely based on fact"—but it's the emotional truths the show reveals that make it so compelling. It feels like you're sharing an intimate moment with one of the most recognizable voices of the last century—until the actor transforms into Glaser or another jazz musician, frequent Armstrong critic Miles Davis. One performer plays all three men, not an easy task given the vocal—not to say racial—divide. But local actor Craig Wallace does it with studied finesse. (He's just as good as the actor The Scrapbook saw in the off-Broadway production in 2014.) When his Armstrong talked about how his audiences have become whiter and whiter, and then looked around the room, the opening night audience in Washington couldn't help but laugh along with him.
The play explores with subtlety and smarts the mystery of what makes an artist, and what makes an artist great—along with many other deep questions.
Armstrong sums up his unwavering jollity in one line: "I love the folks and they love me and we all have us a good old time." Satchmo at the Waldorf, with its hard look at race, friendship, and duty, has darker moments than you'd see in a Louis Armstrong performance—but it's still a grand old time.