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Interview: John Douglas Thompson

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Two Saturdays ago I went off to see Satchmo at the Waldorf, Terry Teachout's new play on Louis Armstrong at the tail end of his life. Admittedly, Terry is a close friend, but my feelings about the play weren't swayed by our relationship. To be frank, I'm still stunned by John Douglas Thompson's performance and Terry's words. John plays Armstrong as well as his white manager Joe Glaser, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in this one-man performance, and the results are miraculous. You truly sense you've spent 90 minutes with Armstrong himself—not because John is shooting for an impersonation but because he has a solid understanding of Armstrong and has channeled the essence of his personality and soul.

At the end, the audience leapt to their feet and roundly applauded John, bringing him back on stage three times. Trust me, you've got to see this thing. It's pure magic by John, brilliant direction by Gordon Edelstein and solid, necessary work by Terry. [Pictured above, from left: Terry Teachout, Gordon Edelstein and John Douglas Thompson]

Fortunately, I had a chance to ask John, 49, five questions about his performance...

JazzWax: What sort of research did you do to study Armstrong so you could portray him credibly?

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]

JW: What was the biggest physical challenge playing Armstrong?

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.

JW: Before appearing in Satchmo at the Waldorf, how much did you know about Armstrong—and what was your impression of him?

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.

JW: One senses from your performance that Armstrong had to make a Faustian bargain—that to be perceived as exceptional to millions of Americans, he had to stand out and fit in with equal zest. In other words, audiences watching you have to feel sympathy, not pity. That’s a tough needle to thread. Much rests on your portrayal of Armstrong—creating just enough of an impression without crossing over to hammy impersonation. Was this a conscious decision on your part to avoid overdoing him?

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.

JazzWax notes: Satchmo at the Waldorf, starring John Douglas Thompson, is at the Westside Theater Upstairs at 407 W. 43rd St. in New York. Information: 212 239-6200. For tickets, go here.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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