Life and Times of Louis Armstrong Compressed into 90 Minutes
By Skip Sheffield
Louis Armstrong never had it easy.
If you take nothing else home from “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” it is this melancholy fact. Terry Teachout’s one-man biographical play runs through June 12 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
Barry Shabaka Henley plays Satchmo as well as fellow trumpeter Miles Davis and his white manager Joe Glaser. The play is set on the evening of Armstrong’s last performance in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria in March of 1971. He records his memoirs on reel-to-reel tape.
Satchmo is in bad shape. He is short of breath and keeps an oxygen tank in his dressing room. Playwright Teachout, who also directs, was in the house opening night. He calls the play “a work of fiction freely based on fact.” In other words some things are overplayed and others underplayed for dramatic effect. Armstrong packed a lot into his 70 years, and if you covered everything you would be there all night.
So things are simplified. Miles Davis represents all the black people who felt Satchmo was a sellout to his own people and an “Uncle Tom.”
There really was a Joe Glaser, who had mob connections and became Armstrong’s manager. He represents all the white people who took advantage of Armstrong’s talent and good nature. As such he becomes the villain of the piece.
The shadow of bigotry and racial discrimination hangs heavy over “Sachmo at the Waldorf.” Armstrong lived through a time of strict racial segregation, and learned to cope with being a second-class citizen. He marvels that he is not only playing at the Waldorf, he is staying there in a suite.
Barry Shabaka Henley’s performance is both a tour de force and a workout. Though there is a trumpet onstage which he often picks up, he never plays it. The music you hear in the background is Louis Armstrong himself in recordings.
Louis was no angel. He was quite foul-mouthed and prone to anger behind his smiling façade. No mention is made of his first three marriages nor his fourth and final one where he settled into relative domesticity in Queens, New York. That’s where Armstrong died not along after when this play was set. His house in Corona, Queens has become a museum and shrine to a singular American talent. This play is a lot more fun.
Tickets are $64. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.