What a Wonderful World

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OBIE Award–winning John Douglas Thompson in Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater January 13–February 7. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Must an entertainer be an agent of social change?  Is it enough to be the best at what he does, entertaining millions for half a century?  That’s an important issue at the heart of the excellent Satchmo at the Waldorf, playing at ACT.

Louis (pronounce the “s”, he was no Frenchy “Louie”) Armstrong was a product of the New Orleans slums with a magnificent talent.  He was on the road playing while still in his teens, and hiding out in France by the time he was 35, threatened by the Mob.

That’s when he called Joe Glazer, a club manager he knew from Chicago.  A partnership was formed, with Glazer managing and Armstrong playing the horn.  Glazer did all the grunt work–hired and fired the band, made the dates, arranged the travel, mollified the Mob.  Armstrong had one job–play the hell out of the horn and keep the customers happy.

And it worked.  For almost 40 years the two prospered.  To outsiders, it looked like a landowner and sharecropper arrangement, but they were both happy.

However, the world was changing.  WWII brought tens of thousands of black people from the farms of the south to the factories of the north, Rosa Parks refused to move, Brown v. Board of Education, the entire Civil Rights era.  And Louis just kept putting on his tuxedo, smiling and playing.  He made headlines when he called Eisenhower “gutless” over the efforts of Orville Faubus to keep the schools segregated, but wasn’t a civil rights activist otherwise.

In the ACT theater, John Douglas Thompson portrays both Armstrong and Glazer in this play, and Miles Davis as well, switching characters seamlessly.  For 95 minutes he owns the stage, bringing the back story of an artist’s career to life. Louis is often foul-mouthed and angry in his dressing room, never onstage.  He relates the indignities of the segregated world in a real and personalized way you won’t get from books.  This isn’t a musical–the only song he sings during the performance is in Hebrew and you likely won’t recognize it if you don’t go to temple regularly.

The single stage set is the dressing room at the Waldorf Hotel where Armstrong is performing at the end of his career.  Lighting changes turn it into the office of Joe Glazer or a nightclub where Miles Davis is performing.

Satchmo at the Waldorf  is more than just a night at the theater; it’s an education, an American history course and a window into the life of a great American performer.  See it while you can.

 

 

 

 

 

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