For the most part I’ve only talked about it in passing on this blog, but a year ago I started writing a one-man play about Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser, his longtime manager. (The same actor plays both parts.) The play, which grew out of the research I did for my recent biography of Armstrong, is called Satchmo at the Waldorf, and a couple of weeks from now it will become more than just a furtive gleam in the author’s eye.
As part of my current residency at Rollins College’s Winter Park Institute, where I wrote the first draft of Satchmo at the Waldorf last year, I’m going to be taking part in a public presentation of the play’s opening section, the first time that any part of the script has been performed, either in public or in private. I’m staging the scenes that we’re doing–it’ll be my directing debut–and Dennis Neal, a seasoned actor who lives in Orlando, not far from Winter Park, will be playing the double role of Armstrong and Glaser. He’s mainly a stage actor, but the chances are good that you’ve seen him on screen, since his list of credits includes Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking and John Sayles’ Sunshine State.
I met Dennis yesterday afternoon at our first rehearsal, and within minutes I was floored. Not only is he quick and brilliantly responsive, but he instinctively sensed what I was looking for, gave it to me, then made it better than I could ever have imagined myself. It’s not my place to talk about the quality of the play, much less my staging of it, but I can absolutely guarantee you that Dennis is going to be a knockout and a wow.
The play itself is probably not what you’d expect. Most one-man shows about famous people are unchallenging, sweet-tempered exercises in hagiography. Not Satchmo at the Waldorf. I’ve tried to show Armstrong as he really was and make him speak the way he really spoke–this is absolutely not a show for kids, unless you’re the kind of parent who’d take your kids to see American Buffalo–and I’ve also tried to suggest the knotty complexity of his quasi-filial relationship with Glaser, an ex-gangster from Chicago who ran his career with an iron hand. To put it another way, I wanted to write a real play, not a piece of fawning fluff, and now that I’ve seen some of it in the rehearsal studio, I feel pretty good about the results.
I’m also enjoying my first shot at directing. Dennis says that I’m giving him what he needs in the way of guidance, and he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’d say a thing like that just to be polite. Be that as it may, directing a play seems to feel natural to me, at least so far, and I can’t wait for the two of us to roll up our sleeves and really get down to work next week.
And after February 1…what? That remains to be seen. For the moment I can’t say any more than that I’ve acquired a theatrical agent and that a number of people in the business have expressed interest in the script. But now that Dennis has showed me what Satchmo at the Waldorf looks and sounds like, I’m starting to feel as though something good may come of my maiden voyage into the deep waters of playwriting.
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For more information about the first performance of scenes from Satchmo at the Waldorf, go here.