Satchmo at the Waldorf, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, is not timid. Nor should it be. With a script by Wall Street Journal arts critic Terry Teachout, the strong hand of Eleanor Holdridge guiding the DC premiere and the astounding performance of Craig Wallace, Satchmo at the Waldorf is not about jazz history as much as a piercing production about a Black life that mattered; and still does. Satchmo at the Waldorf is about the not-so-wonderful world of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong – trumpeter and public entertainer par excellence.
Satchmo at the Waldorf is unexpected, in-your-face, political theater. It is clearly about race and music in this tough-minded, blunt-spoken Mosaic Theater offering. It is meant to shock with its earthy, no nonsense language and the multi-layered dive into the private thoughts of a man many a Baby Boomer might think they know from listening to his ‘60’s pop hits “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!“ I took away that Armstrong was one strong full-throated man, with opinions and words full of muscle, verve, anger, and abundant hurt. That bright big smile was a smoke-screen.
As scripted by Teachout, the full-throated Mosaic Theater production provides the audience an opportunity to know Armstrong well beyond the beguiling smile and good humor that he regularly showed white audiences. And know that the production is a straight play with some musical undernotes. It is not a musical.
Mosaic’s show is an unforeseen, mini theater festival about race and music when tagged with Signature Theatre’s production of Jelly’s Last Jam. While the two shows are wildly different in certain aspects, they complement each other. Seen as a twin-bill they bridge seven decades or so of American jazz and those who created this most American of music.
Seeing Satchmo I was struck by overlap between the two real lives that had been fictionalized. Jelly Roll Morton lived 1890 to 1941. He was born in New Orleans and spent time in Chicago and New York City (and even in Washington, DC). Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 and died in Queens, NY in 1971. He too lived for a spell in Chicago at the time that Morton was there. They were aware of each other in real life and in their fictionalized lives.
But this In the Moment column is more an Op-Ed piece with a different tack. Attending a performance at which playwright Teachout provided elaboration for his artistic choices he made very clear the importance of a particular source of research material. It was the actual audio tapes made by Louis Armstrong over the years. As Teachout spoke, I watched with interest how the audience took in that information. Teachout was most gracious when he explained the artistic choices he made in developing the script to include Armstrong, Joe Glaser (Armstrong’s white, Jewish, long-serving manager) and Miles Davis (a major critic of Armstrong as a man and jazz musician).
In her program notes, Director Eleanor Holdridge wrote
“Yes, I don’t’ think this dialectic reflects on Armstrong and his amazing talent as much it reflect on the African American that white American wishes to see, the benign face that denies the pain..My hope with this production is that it and both celebrates the brilliant generous, complex man while asking some hard questions about art and the world in which we continue to live.”
Holdridge with the fine work of Craig Wallace and the Mosaic production staff succeed admirably in their ambition. Satchmo may well ruffle feathers; that is a good thing for it is damn good theater with soul. It is a very personal play that needs to be seen and discussed about a man who has a line in the play, if I recall it correctly; “I did lots to uplift my people”
Now, let me end by stealing a line from a review of The Motherfucker with a Hat by a dear friend, colleague, and fellow reviewer who I miss dearly. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins who passed away two years ago at age 47, reviewed The Motherfucker with a Hat for DCMTA. I was struck by this line when I first read it. It grabbed me then and is a fitting end note for this column about Mosaic’s Satchmo at the Waldorf:
“You get a sense early on, and certainly once you are in the thick of the play – the sting of the expletive not only loses it power – the use of the term makes total sense.”
Yup, right on!
So, if you see both Mosaic’s Satchmo at the Waldorf and Signature’s Jelly’s Last Jam please do tell me what you think of them as a double-bill that bridges some many decades of race and music in America.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays through September 25, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.