Louis Armstrong cusses up a storm in Terry Teachout’s smart, unfiltered one-man drama “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” The great trumpeter, well known among jazz fans for having a salty tongue, also blasts out red-hot notes of racial slang.
Immersion in such divisive language can pin your ears back, but that’s the way it was, the genial yet feisty Satchmo explains to us in his dressing room during a final gig in 1971. Armstrong may have ruled the music world with his bright, jaunty horn and ebullient personality, but racist American standards had him eating in the kitchen rather than the dining room after too many of his shows.
Caught in a no-win vise late in his career, he was branded by the younger, cooler, angrier generation of black musicians as an Uncle Tom because white audiences felt safe with him. Armstrong partly acknowledged the point.
“Looked like a carton of eggs out there,” he grouses about his all-white Waldorf crowd.
That’s the kind of friction “Satchmo” explores during the tightly packed 80-minute drama at the Mosaic Theater Company, presided over by Craig Wallace with a gravelly growl and beam of a smile. The dramatic formula is familiar: a great star in twilight, looking back over the high points and rough times of a tumultuous career.
“Satchmo” is not a musical portrait a la “Jelly’s Last Jam” (now playing at Signature Theatre) or “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” or like the musical biographies that are a house staple at Alexandria’s MetroStage. This is a one-man monologue, and for the first half of the show you’re conscious of the super-informed Teachout lugging in lots of biographical material.
Teachout is a longtime arts critic and the author of the 2009 biography “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” so the data always feels reliable. It takes a while to really flow, though, even with Wallace amiably playing a feeble, aged Armstrong who slowly changes in his drab dressing room and gulps oxygen from a tank between anecdotes.
Wallace doubles as Armstrong’s tough-guy manager, Joe Glaser, a white Jewish operator who once worked for Al Capone. That long relationship becomes the evening’s fulcrum as Teachout explores how the two men made Armstrong world-famous, yet did and didn’t really know or trust each other. As Glaser, Wallace is wound a little tighter than he is as the loose Louis (who, we are told, always pronounced his first name with an “s,” not as “Louie”), and the Glaser bluster is even more vicious than Armstrong’s.
Wallace also gets to serve up a brief but vivid Miles Davis, a cool cat lurking near the wings as he frostily criticizes Armstrong’s upbeat persona as “plantation bulls---.” These bracing, icy-blue Miles moments aside, director Eleanor Holdridge’s production at the Atlas Performing Arts Center is more efficient than atmospheric; the look and feel are never as intriguing as the language or as evocative as the rare snippets of music.
That language, though, actually made the audience flinch during Monday’s opening as the characters casually — and sometimes spitefully — toss out the kind of racial epithets we’ve roped off as forbidden. Wallace carefully balances Armstrong’s anger and optimism, and it makes you grin that whenever Wallace sings a little phrase, you hear a pretty authentic imitation of the “sawmill voice,” in Armstrong’s description, that was even more recognizable than his trumpet playing. (A sequence of Armstrong explaining his instrumental approach is wonderfully illustrative.)
But more critical is the sunny entertainer’s resistance, something Wallace plays with frankness, ease and just enough of a sharp edge as the betrayals pile up. You can see why this play would appeal to the industrious and topically minded Mosaic Theater, already entering its second season after Artistic Director Ari Roth splintered away from Theater J: The historical material is still immediately relevant, and the story, at its juiciest, is jammed with internal schisms, cultures at odds and words that sting.
Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Set, Andrew Cohen; lights, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Brandee Mathies; sound, Christopher Baine. About 80 minutes. Tickets: $40-$60. Through Sept. 25 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.