Saturday, May 14, 2016

Satchmo at the Waldorf – An Intensely Moving Experience at Dramaworks

Terry Teachout, the esteemed theatre critic of the Wall Street Journal has gone full circle, from Louis Armstrong’s biographer, Pops; A Life of Louis Armstrong, to playwright, Satchmo at the Waldorf, and now director of his own play on the Dramaworks stage. His biography is a work of prodigious scholarship and intellect while the play is clearly written straight from the heart.  His professional directorial debut is the confluence of his intimate knowledge and love of Louis Armstrong and years as a working critic.  How can such erudition not result in a work of art to stir even the most casual theater-goer? 

The play not only moves, but informs.  Louis Armstrong, for many in the audience, was a figure from popular culture, holding a horn more than blowing it, usually singing a song in his gravelly voice, his handkerchief in hand, an overall good guy in movies and on TV.  Teachout’s work reclaims not only his jazz genius but documents his rise from lowly beginnings, so improbable for a poor illegitimate child born to a part-time prostitute in New Orleans (his baptismal card described him as "niger, illegitimus"), how he was used by his manager, Joe Glaser, and then reviled by the black community, as represented by Miles Davis in the play, into the public persona we all fondly remember.  This is a testimony to his indomitable spirit.

One person plays are difficult.  They’re usually retrospective accounts of a life, with little or no interaction and in this case, a play about a musician who doesn’t get to perform (other than hearing some brief recordings and a few bars of a song by the actor).  But the absence of live music doesn’t detract from the story of this great musical icon, as you will easily suspend disbelief and find that one actor, Barry Shabaka Henley, successfully captures the essence of these three people, each with a distinctive “take” on Louis Armstrong.  His is a bravura performance which will leave you a good deal wiser and more emotionally connected to the great Satchmo.

Barry Shabaka Henley as Satchmo
There is of course Louis himself who tells his story in his own unique vernacular, expletives and all, told directly to the audience or into his tape recorder in an attempt to capture the story of his life.  This is delivered in the dressing room at the Waldorf, his last gig in 1971, only months before his death.  A lighting change announces the arrival of another character, Joe Glaser, his manager who Armstrong dutifully (and gratefully) obeyed (to keep him out of harm’s way with the mob) and who made him the performer we most remember, the happy-go-lucky entertainer.  But that is the very personality most despised by the third character (another change of lights), Miles Davis, who despised what he viewed as Satchmo’s Uncle Tom demeanor.  Armstrong was comfortable in his own skin, but besieged by these two opposing elements. It is a testimony to Barry Shabaka Henley that he pulls off this personality trifecta with such ease, allowing the audience to believe the unbelievable.  This internal tension is why the drama excels.
There is so much revealed in the play about Armstrong, much of it contrary to his public image, lovingly written by Teachout, encapsulating his accepting, optimistic personality on the one hand, and his bewilderment as to how he was used by his manager, one who had ties and debts to the mob who upon his death left nothing to the very person who made him rich.  As such the play is as much social commentary about race (Armstrong wore a Star of David to honor a Jewish couple who were exceedingly kind to him as a child) as it is about the world of a black jazz-man’s life during those early years and what it was like to work hundreds of gigs a year while mobsters controlled many of the clubs. Imagine playing at hotel venues, not being allowed to stay there or even eat at its restaurant, having to grab food in the kitchen.  Imagine the hours they endured and the drugs that were ubiquitous (Armstrong himself was a regular user of marijuana). 

Nonetheless, it was a two way street, Glaser transforming him from a jazz figure to a world class entertainer.  Perhaps no one song symbolized that transition more than Hello Dolly.  As Armstrong laments in the play, Now just between you and me, “Dolly” ain’t much of a song.  Tell you the truth, it’s a piece of shit. Tune kinda go round in circles, words ain’t so hot.  But Mr. Glaser, he say, “Louie, you go make the song,” and I say, “Yes, sir, Mr. Glaser” just like I always do.  Got to do what the boss man say.  So I cut the record, hit the road, forget about it.  Here the lights change as Glaser’s character remerges, explaining that Louis was doing a gig somewhere in East Jesus, Wyoming, or some shithole like that, and the audience was yelling, “Hey, Pops, do that ‘Hello, Dolly!’”… Louis looks over at the piano player and says “What the fuck are they talking about?”  So the piano player tells him they want him to sing this song he cut in New York a couple of months ago.  And get this:  Louie can’t remember it!  Can you believe it?  Man cuts a fucking record, they’re playing it on the radio a hundred times a day, and he still can’t remember the goddamn thing.  But that ain’t the good part.  He asks the guys in the band if they know how it goes…and none of them can remember it, either!  Musicians.  Whatta bunch of knuckleheads.  This wonderful dialog faithfully imagines their relationship and does so throughout the play.

But, then, there is the admonition of Miles Davis.  If Armstrong was the black jazz innovator of the first half of the 20th century, Davis was the leading black jazz musician of the second half.  Although both were trumpeters, they were as different in their styles of jazz as they were in their attitudes, Davis being an outspoken social critic.  He was partially schooled in classical music at Juilliard, not on the streets of New Orleans like his predecessor.  Armstrong was always sensitive – especially later in life – as to his standing in the black community.  DAVIS: Ain’t nothing wrong being in business with no white man, long as you the boss.  But it’s different when the man own everything and tell you where to go and what to do.  That’s bullshit.  Plantation bullshit.  And that’s the way Joe Glaser treated Louis.  Mobbed-up cocksucker struts around and says, “Don’t give me no lip or I’ll tell the boys in Chicago to shoot off your kneecap.” Fuck that.  And that yes-massa shit Louis talks about Mister Glaser this and Mister Glaser that?  Fuck that, too.  He say, “Oh that Mister Glaser, he just like my daddy, he’s my best friend in the whole wide world.” Shit.  My manager ain’t my friend – he works for me.  He does what I want.

But if anyone got Louis right, it was his mother on her death bed, her last words recalled by Armstrong: You a good boy. You treat everybody right.  Everybody loves you, white and colored, they all love you ‘cause you gotta good heart.

Terry Teachout Opening Night
This was Teachout’s professional directorial debut.  He achieves an impressionistic sensibility, one that is felt as pure poetry, particularly given the wonderful script and the heart and soul of a great actor. It was especially revealing to see the hand of the director through Teachout’s transparent Twitter feeds.  As this was a learning experience for him, he kept his followers informed.  One tweet in particular sums up his approach as a director, “Much of directing is observing. You search out found objects in the actor's improvisations, then make the accidental intentional.”

The last production of the show in Chicago starred the same actor, Barry Shabaka Henley, so he came to his PBD debut well prepared with his lines, awaiting Teachout’s take on his own play.  He had some of his own interpretations, ones that appealed to Teachout, so he went with the flow.

Indeed, the play broadly succeeds on the astounding performance of Barry Shabaka Henley, a consummate professional who WILL have you believe he is Armstrong, Glaser, or Davis.  It’s an incredible accomplishment for one person on stage for about 90 minutes, having to deliver a 13,000 word monologue, convincingly playing three different characters.  He doesn’t have the advantage of having other actors to feed off (or even to rescue him if he loses his way).  The pauses are as important as the words and their emphasis, and this is where the director and actor worked in close collaboration.

It takes a team to make a successful play as Teachout himself acknowledged in his blog article, Putting on the Frosting  We long-subscribing and loyal Dramaworks followers know that this has been the key to making this theatre company one of the best in the country.  It is the constant, meticulous attention to detail, subtle to the audience as everything on stage seems to be a moving representation of life itself.  Dramaworks’ technical team takes a great play and helps to make it even better. 

Lighting designer Kirk Bookman handles the delicate lighting changes as Henley segues from one character to another, but making these changes subtle (other than Davis who has his own unique muted red palette with a purple backlight), creating a lighting design which helps the audience feel, not only who’s who or where to look. There are about one hundred lighting cues in this one person play – it is that important to the production. There is one point in the play where Armstrong is remembering when the love of his life, his fourth wife, Lucille, had erected a Christmas tree in their home in Queens.  Armstrong was always on the road and of course there was no such tree in his childhood.  This was his first and he recalls sitting up all night looking at the lights, Henley bathed in dappled yellow, green, and red lights, in a heartfelt scene.

Matt Corey’s sound design includes parts of Armstrong’s beloved songs, either hummed by Henley or heard over Armstrong’s tape recorder, something he invested in midway through his career at the suggestion of Bing Crosby (with whom he was friends for many years but was never invited to his home – a sad commentary).  There is one extended recording of Armstrong’s classic West End Blues, probably the song that established his standing as one of the great jazz innovators of “swinging and singing.”  The music warms the environment and is evocative of Armstrong’s wide range of musical gifts.

Scenic designer Michael Amico has built a perfect set, creating multiple focal points – his dressing table, his oxygen tank, the tape recorder station, a couple of places to sit, so there is always action.  The dressing table doubles as Glaser’s office.  Miles Davis appears only stage left, always in the same spot, kind of a Greek chorus of criticism.

Stage manager James Danford has all the interlocking wheels of these production elements in sync, while Erin Amico’s costume design places us squarely in the early 1970’s, the time of this imaginary, but so very real moment near the end of Armstrong’s incredible career and life.

Teachout said that he approached his first directorial job as if he was not the playwright.  This objectivity, with the remarkable performance of Barry Shabaka Henley, freed his inner voice, his passionate hymn to Louis Armstrong, allowing it to soar.  Don’t miss the opportunity to witness this achievement now at Dramaworks and join in the standing ovation at the conclusion of the play. 

From Schleman’s Rhythm on Record (1936)