Play It Again

Regardless of whether you see or hear him first, Louis Armstrong is instantly recognizable. Armstrong—who went by the nicknames Satchmo and Pops—helped bring jazz to the masses, even garnering criticism from his black contemporaries for white-washing the genre to appeal to mass audiences.

   But it’s time to forget what you think you know about Armstrong the indomitable trumpeter and meet the man behind the horn.

   Satchmo at the Waldorf, onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through June 12, presents an intimate investigation into who Armstrong was, the people who surrounded him, and the cultural milieu in which he lived and played. Written by famed theater aficionado and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, Satchmo takes place in a dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel immediately following one of Armstrong’s final performances before his death in 1971.

Barry Shabaka Henley in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Satchmo at the Waldorf. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   Satchmo might be a one-man play, but it features three characters all brought to life by veteran film, television, and theater actor Barry Shabaka Henley. The play opens with Henley as Armstrong, presented in profile blowing his trumpet onstage for a warm audience. When he returns to his dressing room, he is in the middle of a coughing fit, violently wheezing for a taste from his oxygen tank. Once he recovers, he unleashes Satchmo’s signature timbre and regales the audience with soundbites of his life story: how he grew up, the Jewish family that gave him the money to buy his first trumpet, the countless clubs and hotels he played at but couldn’t patronize because of the color of his skin.

   As he weaves these tales, he morphs into two additional characters: his late manager, Joe Glaser, and fellow trumpet player Miles Davis. By establishing unique vocal identities for each man, Henley is able to transition from one to the other with ease. Though he spends most of the play’s 90 minutes as Armstrong, he frequently has to become Glaser in a single beat, a feat accomplished by his convincing New York/Jewish accent. Armstong and Glaser share certain personality traits—like a love of profanity—but represent two poles of the entertainment business, those of performer and business agent. By juxtaposing both perspectives, Teachout taps into the play’s main source of controversy.

   Henley’s transformation from Armstrong to Davis is more gradual, calling for a slowdown in tempo and a total change in body language. When playing Davis, he settles into a hipster swag that draws a sharp distinction to Armstrong’s openhearted sincerity. When Davis accuses Armstrong of pandering to white audiences—he even goes so far as to coin him an Uncle Tom—the insult hits hard because the audience knows Armstrong and the struggles he went through to earn a living doing what he loved.  

   If all this sounds like a lot for one actor to handle, that’s because it is. But Henley attacks all three roles with vigor, bringing depth to each man and never slipping into caricature territory. He does Pops proud.  

Barry Shabaka Henley in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Satchmo at the Waldorf. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   Though Satchmo has been performed throughout the country, this production marks Teachout’s directorial debut, and all signs point to him being a natural. With the exception of a few sloppy sound transitions, the play swings with the script’s established beats, guiding the audience from one moment to the next, one character to another. One truly beautiful touch: Having Henley close the case on his trumpet just as he describes closing the casket on his mother. Cue the waterworks.

   Teachout’s script has inherent pitfalls, as many one-person plays do. Where similar productions use music as the impetus for biographical dissertations (see the Billie Holiday tale Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill as well as The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith), Satchmo does not feature any live music. Therefore, many of Armstrong’s musings feel tangential, untied to a consistent chronology or mitigating thought. The main narrative revolves around Armstrong and Gazer’s relationship and the conflicts between whites and blacks surrounding the rise of jazz music. With only one person onstage, it can be hard to draw out the dynamics of these themes, but Henley’s emotional range adds weight to the content.

   Teachout’s love of language, however, is on full display and is a huge asset to the script. His words match the musicality of his subject and he clearly has fun creating beautiful turns of phrase. Simple statements like “When I sing, I smile” exemplify Armstrong’s public image, while more encapsulating thoughts like “What you hear coming out of a man’s horn, that’s what he is” and “Play a solo tell a story” seem to perfectly synthesize the essence of Satchmo, the man and the play.   

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