with Julia Rosa Stöckl
Satchmo at the Waldorf
by Terry Teachout
directed by Gordon Edelstein
starring John Douglas Thompson
John Douglas Thompson’s brilliant performance as Louis Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf was one of the great moments of Shakespeare and Company’s 2012 season. As we rose from our seats after the performance, my companions and I were emotionally drained, that is, deeply moved, and we agreed that the play and its message were important. With John Douglas Thompson on stage the whole experience seemed overwhelming and beyond criticism. Yet shortly after the performance, an encounter with some of those responsible brought me down to earth and forced me to enunciate the flaws I’d noticed in as succinct and helpful a way as possible. The lighting needed polishing, mostly simplification, as did the play itself. Satchmo just got a little too busy with his tape recorders at points, symptomatic of a deeper problem in the narrative process of this extended monologue and the protagonist’s relation to the audience. There were and are other problems, which I’ll discuss later. Thompson’s acting was so powerful that one had to dig beyond it to get at these. There were only a few moments when it was tangible on stage.
As the play made its extended progress, via the Longwharf Theater in New Haven, to Broadway, where it is now deservedly enjoyed by larger audiences. The problems I mentioned have been mostly solved. The lighting clarifies the performance rather than accompanies it; the script is clearer and more economical; excessive stage business has gone; JDT’s performance has also been polished. His mastery Louis Armstrong’s voice and mannerisms is now so complete that it feels as if one were listening to the man himself. On the other hand, I thought one of the admirable qualities of his performance at Lenox was that he didn’t try to imitate this very famous entertainer, one of the first to enter the majority of the world’s minds and homes, not only through public performance, but through the movies, radio, television, and the press—the full modern media treatment. For one thing, Mr. Thompson, who has a well-proportioned, almost athletic build, looks nothing like Louis Armstrong, and there’s no point in his trying—which neither he nor his audiences have any trouble in accepting. The voice, now, on Broadway, is close to perfect.
And the show is moving, as well, although I felt rather a different cluster of emotions at the end in New York, perhaps more conventional ones. While my first viewing left me in awe of the sheer diversity and complexity of the problems and opportunities Louis Armstrong had been dealt in his life: growing up a poor, fatherless son of a prostitute in New Orleans, reform school, color, his natural talent that had a life of its own pushing him forward, the need for a white protector when breaking out of black enclaves, i.e. that of a Jew with gangland connections…the mob cuts in on his share of the business he formed with his agent-protector, leaving him embittered towards after his agent’s death. His injured rant reaches a climax at the end, and Satchmo calms into a valedictory summation of his life—women, love, wife, religion—and exits. In Lenox I left floored by Armstrong’s grandeur in living in this tangle; it New York, it seemed slightly stereotyped, like the final minutes of a John Ford biopic about one of his simple heroes, and not without a dash of sentimentality.
On the one hand solo theater provides a flexibility and freedom from realistic presentation that encourages experimentation—and that, to my mind, is the strongest suit of the genre. Satchmo at the Waldorf, as a narrative monologue telling the protagonist’s life with a carefully planned oscillation between present action, reminiscence, and a retelling of the life, is a particularly conservative use of the medium, although American audiences, even younger ones, tend to be conservative, feeling comfortable with a storytelling mode and structure—a linear presentation of events.
The play contains a lot of information. In a way, Terry Teachout is the last person who should be writing a play about Louis Armstrong, since he wrote a relatively recent major biography of him, which has been praised for its thorough research. However, as a drama critic (He has written about music, especially jazz, art, and literary figures like H. L. Mencken and Whittaker Chambers.) Mr. Teachout can bring an exceptional store of experience with the stage to his first play, and the sense of theater that entails. It is remarkable how rarely his studious baggage gets in his way: one can cite the quantity of detail in general, but one passage, both at Lenox and in New York particularly bothered me, and that was Armstrong’s reflexion on his own music, leading into a stylistic analysis, based on operatic singing and Mozart in particular. It is hard for me to believe that Satchmo would have analyzed in own music-making in this way, even with the slangy veneer that coats it in the play.
Another veneer is the barrage of profanity which constitutes the basic level of diction. I’m not prudish about bad words. I use them as much as anyone. Nonetheless, I think in a literary work and on stage, they weaken the force of language as a facile source of color and entertainment. A swear word almost never fails to get a laugh. Again, I have to praise John Douglas Thompson for bringing this off so effectively, without letting us become aware of how it dilutes meaning in a kind of shotgun effect. Towards the end of the play, the second time around, I distanced myself and reflected that the words Mr. Thompson was speaking were the worst kind of caricature of uneducated Afro-American speech of past generations—but he spoke them so eloquently that most of the audience connected with the feeling behind them rather than the diction itself.
As an American, I’m used to the kind of literal narrative I’ve described, but I had the good fortune to attend the performance with Julia Rosa Stöckl, who has enjoyed great success here in New York with a solo play she herself wrote in a freer form. I’ll let her response bring this review to a close.
John Douglas Thompson is an incredible actor – I felt he really incorperated the character fully and even the singing was so close to the original. I wished I would see more full-hearted performances like this. An actor who really knows his craft and at the same time brings all the empathy that especially a part like this requires.
The strongest moments for me though were the ones where I witnessed something like a private moment with Louis Armstrong: when he saw himself in the mirror, the way how he cleaned his trumpet – those are the moments I am interested in that tell me the most about the essence of this great artist. I was wondering why the play (and many other solo-shows I have seen recently) focused so much on the facts. The actor performing in different characters and telling a story in a classical way seem to be the most common forms of writing a solo-show.
Though I have seen many interesting shows, I feel the whole point of a monodrama is missed through that way of writing.
In a way as an audience I get totally distracted and distanced from the main character. I want to experience with the actor.
The point of seeing a solo-show for me is to understand something deeper about a personality that you can’t explain in a different way: Like film uses private moment or opera uses solos.
It would be very interesting to see more experimental forms of solo shows in that sense, and I would have loved to see John Douglas Thompson in a play that is fully focused on his inner life from which I have already seen so much in this performance.
In spite of our criticisms, Satchmo at the Waldorf is a powerful show, and everyone should go to see it. Perhaps you responded differently. Let us know!