Satchmo at the Waldorf explores the life of Louis Armstrong on many complex levels: the personal, the professional, and the historical. Not surprisingly, the stand-out moments in this fantastic one-man show occur when Barry Shabaka Henley (playing Armstrong and a few other roles) is in the closest proximity to Armstrong’s music.
Henley doesn’t play the trumpet onstage, but he does some limited singing while using his spot-on mimic of Armstrong’s trademark “sawmill” voice. Beginning with a rendition of a Hebrew spiritual—a tribute to Armstrong’s early influences as a child working in the home of a New Orleans Jewish family—the script also reserves time for a too-short sequence when Armstrong listens to a record of “West End Blues” and provides commentary explaining the music genius of his performance. Henley does a little scatting and hits a comedic high note when relaying an anecdote about Armstrong’s cover of “Hello, Dolly”—a song that ultimately passed The Beatles as America’s number one record, but that Armstrong himself thought so little of that he did not remember it when fans began to request it.
The primary conflicts in Satchmo are symbolized in the startling opening image of 70-year-old Armstrong on his knees center stage, gasping oxygen from a tank. He has just finished a performance at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, and he plans to perform two shows tomorrow despite his diminishing health. In reality, he has just finished his last performance—Armstrong would be hospitalized the next day and die four months later.
The life that playwright Terry Teachout (a theater critic and author of the book Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) presents on stage is deeply conflicted by past betrayals. Featured most prominently is Armstrong’s relationship with his Jewish, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser. The Armstrong/Glaser storyline includes ties to Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, connects to accusations from African-American musicians like Miles Davis that Armstrong’s stage persona is an offensive embodiment of a black man pandering to whites, and climaxes in Armstrong’s frustration at being left no share in Glaser’s business (built entirely on Armstrong’s talents) upon Glaser’s death.
Armstrong’s legacy needs to be celebrated, and Teachout’s script is a worthy vehicle for examining the many facets of Armstrong’s life. Henley’s performance calls to mind other actors that have accepted the challenge of standing alone under the stage lights to create that most intimate of connections with their audiences. The following is a list of the most memorable solo performances that I have experienced:
1.Timothy Edward Kane as The Poet in An Iliad (script by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, presented at the Court theater in 2013 and 2015) – Kane’s epic performance in this extraordinary play will likely still be #1 on this list 30 years from now. As an unnamed poet, he explains the Trojan war with remarkable vitality, using the simplest of props (sand, a spotlight focused with a cylinder). The play’s climax, in which Kane recites every recorded human conflict, is likely the most powerful renunciation of war ever presented on stage (check it out on YouTube).
2.Valarie Harper as Golda Meir and others in Golda’s Balcony (script by William Gibson, presented at the LaSalle Bank Theater in 2006) – Harper became the unflinching Golda Meir in this exploration of the Israeli Prime Minister’s role in sustaining Israel. Her plea to the Council of Jewish Federations (“You cannot decide whether we fight. You can only decide whether we live or die”) is matched only by the realization that Golda’s balcony stands several stories underground—her viewpoint of the Dimona nuclear weapons facility.
3. Alan Alda as Richard Feynman in QED (script by Peter Parnell, presented at the Lincoln Center in 2001) – Alda was not strictly alone in QED (a grad student played by Kellie Overbey makes an appearance), but Alda’s breaking of the fourth wall while exploring the Nobel Prize-winning physicist marks QED as a one-man show. The script showcases Feynman’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, but it is more focused on Feynman’s quirky personality, which simultaneously makes him everyone’s favorite uncle and everyone’s most memorable college professor.
4. Lily Tomlin as Trudy and other roles in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (script by Jane Wagner, presented in revival at Broadway’s Booth Theater in 2000) – This vehicle for Tomlin allows her to embody a parade of unique figures in New York including the alien-abducted homeless woman Trudy. Comedic highlights include Trudy trying to explain the difference between Warhol art and soup to aliens, and Kate obsessing over an ambiguous suicide note that she found on the street. Tomlin’s performance was also memorable for her willingness to stop the performance mid-sentence to call out audience members that were talking.
5. Ronald Keaton as Winston Churchill in Churchill (script by Ronald Keaton, presented at the Greenhouse Performing Arts Center in 2014) – Chicago theater veteran Keaton inaugurated his theater company SoloChicago with Churchill, an engaging portrait of the British Prime Minister. Churchill is calm and introspective—an intellectual both standing above and deeply troubled by his critics—even as he builds to his pivotal role in overcoming the Nazis.
HONORABLE MENTION (in order of production)
- Jefferson Mays as Charlotte van Mahlsdorf in I am My Own Wife (script by Doug Wright, presented at the Goodman Theater in 2005)
- Chazz Palminteri as many 1960’s-era Bronx characters in A Bronx Tale (script by Chazz Palminteri, presented at Ford Oriental Theater in 2009)
- Holand Taylor as Ann Richards in Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards (script by Holland Taylor, presented at the Bank of America Theater in 2011)
- Linda Reiter as Mary in The Testament of Mary (script by Colm Toibin, presented at Victory Gardens in 2014)
NOTE: Charles Ross performing all of the roles in One-Man Star Wars Trilogy may not be an achievement at the same level as the other works listened above, but I had a great time watching Ross imitate main characters, ewoks, and star fighters for 75 minutes. I saw it with my father and brother in 2004—one of the few theatrical events that my mother had absolutely no interest in seeing.