How exciting can an 80-minute, one-man act be? Very.
Terry Teachout, playwright of “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” does a riveting job of dragging audience members back into time, as one man embodies the spirit of three legendary figures.
The performance, centered around Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential and legendary jazz figures, reveals intimate character revelations of not only “Satchmo” but also his Jewish mobster agent Joe Glaser and his toughest critic, iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, all through the eyes of D.C. thespian Craig Wallace.
The play, set in 1971, begins with a 70-year-old Louis Armstrong, under one spotlight, leaving fans with his famed, enormous wide-toothed smile after finishing what will turn out to be his last show played at the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.
With ease, Wallace unmistakably conveys final fictionalized celebrity confessions, as Armstrong (Wallace) staggers into a modest yet accommodating dressing room, darting over to his oxygen tank, revealing to the audience that he has lung and heart problems and that he most recently just “s–t” his pants.
The dark undertones of the the musician’s declining health, his complicated relationship with Glaser, his agent of 40 years, and his challenges with the black public, who often referred to him as an “Uncle Tom,” are offset by rich comical routines, as Wallace shifts between the money-greedy Glaser and the smooth but militant Davis.
As all of the characters go back and forth expressing their own sentiments of Satchmo, audience members get to watch as Wallace’s body language and demeanor physically and spiritually transform before them, with an added black history crash course on what a lot black citizens had to endure during that time.
During an after-performance sit-down, Wallace expounded on his hopes for his portrayal of Armstrong.
“Not only did I spend a lot of time making sure each character had their own body type, I also spent a lot of time separating who people thought Armstrong was and what he really is,” Wallace said.
Sydney Abel, an audience member and current undergrad student at the University of San Francisco, called it an enlightening performance.
“I grew up in California and as someone young who doesn’t necessarily know these people or who Louis Armstrong is, the spirit that Wallace brings to the stage took me back into time and it really enlightened me with how the pressure was,” Abel said. “I’m not use to that and hearing words like ‘coon’ just enlightened me and brought this time and era back into life.”
“Satchmo at the Waldorf” which began on Sept. 1, will run through Oct. 2 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H Street NE, with ticket prices ranging from $20 to $50. For ticket information, visit atlasarts.com.