By Molly Cox
The Mosaic Theater opens it’s second season strong with it’s production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Opening night was full of excitement and energy, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton made it out for the event.
The audience gets a glimpse into the personal life and perspective of jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, or “Satchmo,” his favorite nickname. If you think to yourself “I’ve heard “What a Wonderful World,” I know that guy,” as I did before seeing Satchmo, you need to see this play. Craig Wallace portrays Armstrong, as well as Joe Glaser and Miles Davis. Wallace nails Armstrong’s raspy but warm voice, and portraying him as a playful and thoughtful artist with a sharp, honest wit.
One man shows are always hit or miss, and Satchmo is a hit. The casting of veteran actor, Wallace combined with the intricate set designed by Andrew Cohen transports the audience to the night of Armstrong’s last show in 1971. Armstrong is in his dressing room, where he records stories from his life on a vintage reel to reel, pausing several times to breath deeply into an oxygen mask. It’s clear that Armstrong is nearing the end of his life, and wants people to know the real Satchmo.
Armstrong became rich and famous for being an entertainer first and foremost, for making people happy. During his time, he was criticized by other black musicians for what they perceived as his pandering to white audiences, and they labeled him an Uncle Tom. Playwright Terry Teachout disrupts this image, and gives us a story we can sink our teeth into. Armstrong was the grandson of slaves, the son of a prostitute in New Orleans. His extraordinary talent as a trumpet player led to a partnership with manager Joe Glaser. Satchmo explores Armstrong and Glaser’s complex relationship, and the racial tensions that exist when a white, Jewish producer controls the business and finances of a black performer. Glaser, who had mob connections and a troubling history of statutory rape, reveals things to the audience that even Armstrong didn’t know about their partnership.
Armstrong rose to the top of the music industry during the Jim Crow era, and paved the way for young, black musicians such as Miles Davis, who would later criticize him. Though Armstrong played shows in some of the nicest hotels in the country, during the era of segregation, he had to sleep on his tour bus, and eat in restaurant kitchens with the cooks. Though Armstrong ended his career after the Civil Rights era, there was still a long way go on the road to equality. In Satchmo, Davis represents the next generation of black artists and activists- hip and more educated, but just like Armstrong, using music as a tool for social change. As Davis once said, “Jazz is the big brother of Revolution.”
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays at the Atlas Performing Arts Center through September 25. Photographs by Stan Barouh.