Terry Teachout’s familiar, affecting, occasionally mannered “Satchmo at the Waldorf” takes on the overwhelming subject of a great man’s life. The man telling his own tale at the B Street Theatre is Teachout’s version of Louis Armstrong, the larger-than-life American jazz trumpeter and entertainer.
We’ve often seen this type of confessional, one-person show, especially showing the private side of a public figure. The play’s central tenet, Armstrong justifying his benign popular public image while backgrounding his inspirational jazz genius, yields a fertile conflict. While the creative brackets of both the construction and content sometimes move the play awkwardly or ineffectively, “Satchmo” offers a worthwhile view of a complex artist and his equally knotty times.
Jahi Kearse does the heavy lifting here playing a man over 30 years his senior when we encounter Armstrong with less than six months to live. The play is set in March 1971 in a dressing room in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel where he is performing and staying. Armstrong died at age 70 that July. Kearse has a different physicality than the well-known Armstrong, and the actor’s lively good-humored performance doesn’t immediately evoke the older man’s presumed countenance but the elements do eventually find a satisfying fit. Kearse’s Armstrong has more good humor than one might expect as he tells his story rasping in a gravelly voice, flashing a brilliant smile and cursing often.
There’s likely some fiction in Teachout’s skeletal telling of the great musician’s life, but the playwright expertly knows the musician. The longtime theater critic for the Wall Street Journal, Teachout is an Armstrong biographer (“Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong”) and vibrant multidisciplinary arts writer. “Satchmo” is his first play and has worthy objectives and ripe ideas. Teachout had the benefit of recordings Armstrong made for an unfinished autobiography, and the play uses the recordings as a conceit initiating Armstrong’s dramatic remembrances. The writer has Armstrong trace the high points of his life and career over the course of the evening.
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A secondary character, Armstrong’s Jewish, mob-connected, longtime manager Joe Glaser, functions as a looming specter but also appears onstage throughout the play. In an awkward point-counterpoint argument, Kearse shifts back and forth between the two characters. Armstrong reinvented himself as a mainstream entertainer at Glaser’s urging and his manager profited handsomely from the resulting widespread success. To Armstrong’s peer critics, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, the “Hello Dolly”/“What A Wonderful World” version of “Pops,” as he was affectionately known, was an anathema. Davis always praised Armstrong’s playing but felt the happy showman undermined his art. Armstrong, who suffered the racism of Jim Crow as much as any artist, felt betrayed by the criticism he never understood.
The play isn’t quite an elegy as the biography and lacks a certain emotional poetry. Director Martin Damien Wilkins gives it an even tempo and tone while Kearse’s Armstrong is by turns proud, angry, bitter, perplexed and crass.
The distance from Armstrong’s sublime early career “West End Blues” and the syrup of “Hello Dolly” can hardly be measured, except that the latter one became a chart-topping pop song, displacing the Beatles as the country’s No. 1 song, and the other is an essential linchpin of a complex living art form. The same man created both and that’s the most fascinating part.
Satchmo at the Waldorf
What: Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a one-man play about Louis Armstrong looking back on his life and relationship to manager Joe Glaser. With Jahi Kearse as Armstrong.
When: Continues 7 p.m. Tuesdays - Fridays, 2 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 17
Where: B Street Theatre, 2711 B St., B3 venue, Sacramento
Tickets: $26-$38, $8 Student rush.
Information: 916-443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org