Satchmo at the Waldorf Star John Douglas Thompson Takes On The Life and Times of Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong

By Karu F. Daniels
24 Mar 2014

According to Thompson, the production was intended for a small theatre, so audiences can feel the intimacy of the play. "I think we always thought of this as something that would work Off-Broadway than on Broadway... Our initial thought was an Off-Broadway, intimate play with Armstrong talking to the audience — we didn't want to get lost in a space that was too big for the play itself."

Receiving high marks from theatre critics (The New York Daily News said he "hits all the right notes" while The New York Post called him "superb — as versatile on the stage as Satchmo was with his horn') Thompson receives the positive criticism with much humility. "I don't know if I mastered it but it's still a work in progress for me," he shared. "I'm still finding things in the text and in the body language... For me it's just been as continual during the show. You keep doing it and keep working on it and always keeping yourself open to new ideas and hopefully finding new things as you're out there performing for an audience. It takes quite a bit of vigor and a lot of intellectual, emotional and physical rigor to actual do this show because its just one person up there. "

Thompson, a former computer software marketing rep who calls the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn home these days, said he immersed himself in research about Armstrong by paying multiple visits to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens and City of New York's Queens College's Louis Armstrong Archives, which provided a multitude of background material, along with four Armstrong biographies (including Teachout's) and many YouTube videos.

"The archives have all of his tapes, his letters, and his music. What was really key for me was studying old VHS tapes of him on television shows like "The Dick Cavett Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show" at his age of 70," he explained. "So I got to see him at this point of his life, and see how he talked, see how he moved, see how he looked at stuff. So I tried to watch those quite extensively to try to get an understanding of Armstrong's countenance, and his carriage and how it moved and how he talked and how he expressed himself at the age of 70."

The New York Times christened Thompson a "Shakespeare Specialist" in 2009 after he received Obie and Lucille Lortell Awards for his portrayal of Othello. It's something he's honored by, but at the same time can't help but to chuckle about. He's also quick to draw a comparison to his latest work with. "There's something very Shakespearean about Louis Armstrong's life if you look at it.

"There's trials and tribulations and comebacks," he added. "His life had a lot of peaks and valleys which is kind of equivalent to some of these major Greek characters and some of these major Shakespearean characters. They still have such a life force to succeed anyways no matter what you throw at them. I look at Armstrong's life as very Shakespearean which, for me, is a good thing because I've been able to address these major Shakespeare characters in my own research and performance style."

Next up for Thompson is the leading role in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine for Brooklyn's Theatre for A New Audience, directed by Michael Boyd later this summer. Soon after, he said he'll star alongside Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh at BAM.

"I think we kind of bring our life experiences and our life to the work we do," Thompson, 50, stated. "I didn't really know this at the time because I didn't even know I was going to become an actor. But prior to that, you're just living your life and then as you turn into an actor, you start to look back on your life and see there's a lot of grist for the mill — there's a lot in your life that helps you become an actor that you can also use as an actor in your performance and your research and the way you approach characters and how you're going to the work. I'm thankful for the experiences."

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