Fortunately, I had a chance to ask John, 49, five questions about his performance...
John Douglas Thompson: My research has been fairly extensive and in actually ongoing. Some of that research includes visits to the Armstrong House in Corona, Queens, as well as the Armstrong Archive Center at Queens College. I also listened to Armstrong's reel-to-reel tapes, read his letters and watched VHS tapes of Armstrong's final appearances on shows hosted by Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. I listened to all of Armstrong's recordings, from the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to Hello Dolly. I also watched his movies and read several biographies, with special attention to Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. [Pictured above, Louis Armstrong in 1970]
JDT: Finding Armstrong's physicality and countenance. In the play, Armstrong is 70 years old. This is why I felt it necessary to study the VHS tapes of Armstrong's last appearances on those talk shows, so I could see how he looked and sounded.
JDT: I knew very little. I knew of Armstrong's presence, but I attached very little importance or relevance to it. He seemed to be a relic from a time gone by. I was ignorant, as many in my generation are, of Armstrong's genius and cultural contributions. However, my research into his music, movies, politics and other aspects of his life brought me up close and personal with Armstrong, giving me knowledge and most importantly, context. Now I sit at the foot of the master in awe.
JW: For those unfamiliar with the stagecraft, how tricky is it to perform a monologue for 90 minutes without a character break or other actors to feed off of to stay on track?
JDT: Performing a one-man show is the most challenging work I've ever done. It requires a great deal of mental, physical and emotional rigor. I stay on track through the physical movement of the different characters I play in the show as well as their overall story arcs. The strategy that's employed is one of simple repetition, which creates a deep familiarity with the characters and their journeys. All of this paves the way for a mind-body experience where words and movement triggers emotion and emotion triggers words and movement.
JDT: Yes, but you have to understand the experience of working on this play. It has been one of true collaboration between me, Terry Teachout [the playwright] and Gordon Edelstein [the director]. We all made a conscious decision not to overplay Armstrong with some hammy impersonation. We wanted to present a fully dimensional and private Armstrong, allowing the man behind the smile, the man behind the horn, to finally weigh-in and be counted.