At the beginning of Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout’s “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” a 2010 one-actor play now at American Conservatory Theater, the great jazz musician Louis Armstrong (John Douglas Thompson), age 70, stumbles, gasping, into his dressing room at New York’s legendary Waldorf Astoria.
There, he collapses onto a sofa and grabs his oxygen mask.
It would be his last performance. Armstrong died soon after that concert, in 1971.
So we’re put on notice: This won’t be the traditional feel-good paean to a beloved entertainer.
There are plenty of uplifting moments, of course, because Armstrong, at least as imagined by the playwright (who based it on his own biography of Satchmo, “Pops”) and portrayed by the versatile Thompson, is basically a sunny character: a people-pleaser who loves to entertain the crowds with his big smile and croaky singing voice, even with songs that he himself scorns, like his biggest hit, “Hello Dolly.”
Yet this is also a dark play, and how could it not be, because although Armstrong had a successful career, he came up in an era of runaway racism. He tells of touring where he couldn’t eat or sleep in the same places as his white band mates, and of the tragedy at Little Rock in the 1950s.
On a more personal level, he talks yearningly of his trumpet, knowing that it was his singing that made him so popular–with white audiences.
And he starts hinting early on that perhaps he’d been too trusting of white folks, especially of Joe Glaser, his beloved Jewish manager who’d handled — in fact, controlled — his career. That relationship, which is at the heart of the play, is complex and troubling.
A trifle too long and sagging somewhat in the middle, “Satchmo” is for the most part deeply involving.
And Thompson, under the inspired direction of Gordon Edelstein, is transformative as Armstrong, whether joyous or enraged.
He’s equally brilliant as the tough-minded Glaser, who protects his client from the Chicago mobsters on his tail, and as the young jazz hipster Miles Davis, who despises the way Armstrong plays the grinning fool for white audiences.
It is those white audiences, by the way, whom Armstrong is addressing directly in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” and it’s an ironic conceit in that it parallels one of the disappointments in Armstrong’s life, which Teachout so astutely explores: the musician’s ultimate inability to connect with his own people.
Satchmo at the Waldorf
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 7
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org