Forty-one years after Louis Armstrong’s death, playwright/actor Danny Mullen brings a fuller picture of the legendary jazz trumpeter to the Theater of the American South stage. There is more to Satchmo, it seems, than his megawatt smile and musical creativity.
“Backstage With Louis Armstrong” depicts Armstrong in his dressing room after a show in 1957. Playing gracious host and history lecturer to an audience at Barton College’s Kennedy-Campbell Theatre, Mullen depicts Armstrong as a man reminiscing about his early life and angry over the news from Little Rock, Ark., where nine black children had been abused and mistreated by a mob of white people. His anger is so hot that he rants to newspaper reporter and jeopardizes his own career as a musician beloved as much by white audiences as by blacks, calling President Eisenhower a coward for not escorting the children into the school himself.
Armstrong, it turns out, is a man willing to sacrifice his own success and offend his close friends to correct injustice. It’s a side of Louis Armstrong few people today remember.
Mullen’s one-man script is filled with unexpectedly explicit sexual references and politically incorrect racial epithets, often accompanied by Armstrong’s hardy laugh. The script and Armstrong’s reminiscences hearken to a time when the N-word was as pervasive as darkness at night. It was a different time, racially. Armstrong recalls the advice early in his career to pick out a white man to be his protector and to let the world know that “Louis is a white man’s n----.”
The racial and sexual language sometimes left Thursday’s opening night audience gasping in shock or chortling despite themselves. Recounting his first wife’s prostitution, Armstrong says bluntly, “Ain’t no trouble like ho trouble.” Mullen’s mimicking of Armstrong’s deep, gravelly voice fortuitously made some remarks unintelligible, and it was obvious which audience members were shocked and which had not heard the offensive phrase.
Mullen captured well Armstrong’s bent-kneed, tippy-toed shuffle but could not duplicate the great white smile that seemed to take over Armstrong’s entire face. Along with the recounting of Armstrong’s childhood and tortuous road to jazz stardom, “Backstage” includes snippets of many of Armstrong’s most famous songs. No portrayal of Armstrong could be complete without his singing “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” or “Wonderful World.” The audience especially appreciated “Hello Dolly.”
While Mullen’s impersonation of Armstrong is on-target, his greater achievement is in his script, which condenses nearly every little-known aspect of Armstrong’s biography into a show of less than 90 minutes. Mullen manages to capture the style of Armstrong’s vocals, but can’t quite match the original Satchmo’s timbre and range. He comes close enough, however, to transport the audience back 55 years to a very different era, an era that was not so simple as some might remember it, as the righteous anger, strong language and ribald humor remind us.
— Hal Tarleton