Interview: Meet John Douglas Thompson, star of Satchmo at the Waldorf

John Douglas Thompson as Louis ArmstrongJust a couple of months ago, actor John Douglas Thompson didn’t know any more about Louis Armstrong than anyone else.

“I knew what most people know. ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘What a Wonderful World.’ That’s about it,” Thompson said.

So when Thompson, 49, lauded by The New York Times as one of the nation’s greatest classical actors, was called upon to play the jazz icon in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, he knew he had some work to do.

Thompson began to immerse himself in research. He visited locations in Chicago where Armstrong lived and performed, and stocked up on the jazz icon’s music. He read many of Armstrong’s biographies, including “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” by Terry Teachout, the author of Satchmo at the Waldorf and a Wall Street Journal critic.

Thompson went to the Louis Armstrong Museum at Queens College and reviewed hours of Armstrong’s television appearances and written materials. Most importantly, Thompson listened to the many audio tapes Armstrong created, both of his public performances and of his private thoughts. In doing this work, Thompson’s goal was and continues to be capturing Armstrong’s essence. “The ‘go button’ for me to do this play was the exposure to Armstrong’s private life, which Terry has put so wonderfully on display in Satchmo at the Waldorf,” Thompson said.

Thompson learned firsthand the tension between a public and a private persona, and what sorts of civil rights issues Armstrong himself faced and fought against. “I learned from the audio tapes Armstrong’s private persona, the things that troubled him – race, discrimination, losing his black audience. The audio tapes gave me great insight into Louis Armstrong, they were a revelation. For me, as an actor, it is about excavating that stuff,” Thompson said.

The show, directed by Long Wharf Theatre’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein, had an out-of-town run at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. The creative team worked on the piece, refining the story, introducing new characters, and mining the complexity of the subject matter.

The resulting play finds Louis Armstrong (Lou-IS, not Lou-EE, a name bestowed on him by white audiences) spent after a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1971, four months before he died. Talking into his ubiquitous tape recorder, Armstrong tells the story of his partnership with his white, Jewish, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser. “I thought, this could be interesting,” Teachout said. “The way Armstrong looked at that relationship at the end of his life was the heart of the play.”

John Douglas Thompson as in Satchmo at the Waldorf

The relationship, both filial and financial, is a complex one, and Armstrong’s waning days are spent struggling with exactly what Glaser meant to him. The twist in this particular retelling of Armstrong’s life is that Thompson plays both Satchmo and Glaser, as well as a chilly turn as jazz musician Miles Davis.

“Aided by director Gordon Edelstein and the consummately skilled Thompson as interpreter, Teachout — in his debut as dramatist rather than drama critic — has contributed a work of insight and power. It’s enticing to imagine Thompson bringing the real Armstrong — the one so few of us knew — to life again and again, over the coming decades,” wrote Sandy MacDonald of The Boston Globe.

The challenge for Thompson is channeling Armstrong’s essential nature. “No one can imitate him, so why even try?” he said. “Imitation is gimmicky, but essence can be profound.”

Not that long ago, Thompson might not have ever been on stage at all. He worked in marketing while living in New Haven and Hartford and it was only by chance that he was inspired to hit the stage at all. Thompson was supposed to meet up with a date to see August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Yale Repertory Theatre. The date stood him up, but Thompson went to see the show anyway. Leaving the theatre in a daze, Thompson realized that he wanted to be part of it, to see the world from an actor’s perspective.

Thompson’s career spanned Broadway and regional theatres across the country. He has performed the works of Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Ibsen, and now, Thompson inhabits the persona of a musical genius recounting a life well spent.

Satchmo at the Waldorf plays at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, from October 3 through November 4.

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