Douglas Streater thought of Louis Armstrong for years the way most Americans think of him: a jazz legend and the singer of “What a Wonderful World.” But after Streater agreed to play the role of Armstrong in PURE Theatre’s production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, his understanding of the American musical icon deepened.
“He brought [jazz] to the forefront,” Streater said. “His development with jazz parallels the development of America, and those changes reflected the sign of the times.”
Directed by PURE co-founder Sharon Graci, Satchmo at the Waldorf is the 10th one-man show in the theater’s history. Streater not only portrays Armstrong, but also his manager, David Glaser, and his musical contemporary, Miles Davis. Streater’s acting background is extensive — he’s appeared on both the Lifetime network and IFC — but this is his first time tackling a solo show. “It’s a little tougher,” he said. “Because you have to be the one that brings all of the energy.”
“But, no play is really by yourself,” he added. “It’s always a collective of people coming together.”
Graci, too, finds one-person plays to be uniquely rewarding. “[They] create an intimate connection not only between the audience and the performer, but also the director and performer,” she said.
Satchmo at the Waldorf was originally written by Terry Teachout. It’s set in Amstrong’s room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and follows an aging Satchmo as he reminisces about his uncommon life.
As Graci points out, Armstrong broke new ground in numerous ways. He was the first Black musician to have a radio show, the first to play in a mixed band in the South, the first to have a top billing in a movie and the first to refuse to play anywhere he couldn’t also book a room. “His saying was, ‘If you can’t stay, don’t play,’” Graci said.
Indeed, Satchmo at the Waldorf addresses a wide range of themes, from racial injustice to artistic authenticity to mortality. And, Streater will be doing it all on stage by himself for the first time in his career.
“Everything you do in life, you do on your own,” he said. “There’s a trepidation when we have to do things by ourselves. But you grew up in the womb alone. You work alone, even when you’re part of a collective. The challenge is to eliminate the negativity about being isolated. You have to remember that you have people to fall back on and experiences to pull from.”
Portraying a fictional character is one thing, but attempting to embody the spirit of a significant historical figure — particularly one that transcended racial and generational barriers — is a more complex undertaking. To prepare, Streater conducted hours of research. “There were sleepless nights,” he said. “The challenge is a mental one: Am I going to do this character justice? Will I represent Armstrong in a way that lives up to who he was and what he did?”
For Graci, who watched Streater transform in front of her eyes, the answer is yes.
“It’s been amazing to watch Douglas embody Armstrong a little more with every rehearsal,” she said. “The conversations about Louis, his loving perspective on life and his steadfast adherence to amplifying what’s beautiful about the world, were exactly what we all needed in the rehearsal room.”
Armstrong was undoubtedly a pioneer for his race and his music, but his story also has contemporary importance — especially during a moment in American history when the Black community continues to strive for equity. Streater mentioned something that his beloved mentor, Joy Vandervort-Cobb, told him about the Black experience in America: “It’s been one bad contract after another.” There’s a way to “break down those walls, to overcome those bad contracts, to still be successful,” even if the cards are stacked against you, as Streater put it.
“We’re currently facing a lot of things [in this country] we’ve never faced before, but also some things we know well,” he said. “Louis is an inspiration because he showed that it’s possible not only to survive, but to thrive.”