Marc Myers talks to author and playwright Terry Teachout about his latest play:
As Terry Teachout was finishing Pops: A Life, his 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, he had an idea. Realizing that Armstrong’s final performance at the Waldorf in 1971 was an operatic moment — a meet-your-maker crescendo in the life of a great artist — Terry wrote a theatrical work where the trumpeter reflects on his life, and his white manager, Joe Glaser, adds his thoughts. The radical device was having the same black actor play both parts.
The result is Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play now in previews at New York’s Westside Theatre Upstairs. The show, which opens March 4, stars John Douglas Thompson and is directed by Gordon Edelstein. Terry, of course, is the Wall Street Journal‘s drama critic, which places him in the tricky position of walking the talk — putting himself out there as a playwright. It’s one thing to critique plays and performers and quite another to become the artist behind the work and face criticism.
Flying back from Boston yesterday, I posed five questions to Terry a week from Satchmo at the Waldorf’s premiere…
JazzWax: Why place Louis at the Waldorf Hotel—aside from the event being his last performance?
Terry Teachout: One of the themes of Satchmo at the Waldorf is the extent to which Armstrong had lost touch with his original black audience by the end of his life — a fact of which he was well aware, and one that hurt him deeply. It struck me that to use a high-priced uptown hotel as the play’s setting would serve as a powerful and telling symbol of this transformation. Even the title ties into it. You hear it and you ask yourself, “What is Satchmo doing at the Waldorf?”
In addition, the setting is an aspect of what I hope is the complexity of the way in which I portray Armstrong, who wasn’t a simple man by any means. He’s proud, rightly so, that a black man who was born in the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1901 can now play and stay in a hotel like the Waldorf. At the same time, it breaks his heart to look out at the all-white crowd and realize that his own people have turned their backs on him. There’s nothing remotely simple about that situation, or about his emotional response to it.