Before he took the role, John Douglas Thompson admits he didn’t know much more about the life of Louis Armstrong than anyone else.
“I knew what most people knew, and that was basically his recordings of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘What a Wonderful World,’” said the actor now starring in “Satchmo at the Waldorf” at the Wilma Theater through Dec. 2.
So when Thompson, an award-winning actor probably best known for his roles in the classics, was asked to play the part of the jazz legend, he knew he’d have a lot of work to do.
“I went to his house in Queens. I visited the Louis Armstrong Museum at Queens College. I watched hours and hours of his television appearances and read lots of written materials,” Thompson said.
Immersing himself even more, Thompson went to various locations in Chicago where Armstrong lived and performed, and stocked up on his music.
“I also discovered how he felt about losing his Black audience when the term ‘Uncle Tom’ was leveled at him.” Thompson reported. “Yet I feel that when the audience gets a better look at the man behind the smile, they may come to know him better and have a different way of seeing him.”
Thompson might never have been on the stage were it not for a chance happening while he was living in New Haven. Working in the corporate world, he had a date to see August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:” at the Yale Repertory Theater. When his date did not show up, Thompson decided to see the show anyway.
“Before that, I almost never went to the theater,” he said. “But as I watched this play, I was mesmerized, and suddenly I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
And so he did. Over the years, Thompson, has appeared on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country. He has performed the works of Shakespeare, O’Neil, Ibsen and other classical playwrights.
He’s also done TV and film, cast in roles on “Law and Order,” “Michael Clayton,” “Midway” and “Malcolm X,” among others.
In his current role, he does double duty as Armstrong and Armstrong’s agent Joe Glaser, the man who probably knew Armstrong best of all. The relationship was a complex one, and Armstrong’s waning days are spent struggling with exactly what Glaser meant to him.
The play is set backstage at the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in March, 1971. Armstrong sits in his dressing room trying to pull himself together following his celebrated performance. His mind wanders through the amazing journey of his life and his relationship with his manger, as Thompson takes you into the minds and hearts of an American musical icon and the man behind the legend.
“In doing the role I don’t try to imitate Armstrong,” Thompson said. “That would be impossible for me or anybody else to do. I just try to capture the essence of the man as I try to give the audience a look at the private man as opposed to the public persona.”
And Thompson admits how much he’s enjoying doing just that. A multi-award-winner, Thompson also revealed how much he enjoys being on the stage. He said, “I love everything I do, but I must say there’s a special place in my heart for the theater, and the thrill of being out there in front of a live audience.”
Proud of his many accolades and awards, he says he believes that “everyone who gets up on stage, everyone who has the courage to do that, to display that level of vulnerability to an audience, deserves an award.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 546-7824.