Two wildly different takes on the racial politics of our time opened in New York theaters in the past two weeks.
The most heralded: Bryan Cranston, at height of his fame coming off Breaking Bad, on Broadway in All the Way as President Lyndon B. Johnson twisting arms and skulls to promote passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is, by all accounts, a solid, if somewhat wonkish, play with a bravura performance (see New York Times review). Naturally, J. Edgar Hoover, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Richard Russell all put in appearances. Johnson is shown pushing hard, partly because believes in the bill and partly to further his political ends (he needs a big win to prove he deserves to be president). Of course, Vietnam hovers in the distance.
I haven't yet seen the play so let me concentrate on one I did experience, just last night: Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by the estimable Terry Teachout, author of acclaimed books, including biographies of H.L. Mencken–and Louis Armstrong. It, too, puts racial politics upfront, not music.
This may seem odd to some. Armstrong was nothing less than the most important American musician of the last century–and the most influential singer. (Ponder that for a moment.) His recordings from about 1925 to 1932 changed the course of popular music and jazz forever. The play pays tribute to that but it's true aim is elsewhere.
It's set in Armstrong's dressing room at the Waldorf in New York in 1971, where he has just staggered through a performance, practically on his death bed (indeed, he would die of a heart attack a short time later, in his bed). John Douglas Thompson, in this fantastic one-man show, portrays a not-quite-broken "Satchmo" recalling some of the highlights of his life, going back to growing up fatherless and poor in New Orleans, through his breakthrough years in Chicago and New York and onward to world fame and riches. With Teachout at the helm, it adheres closely to facts (and I can vouch for this, having read several Armstrong bios).
But much of the play revolves around Armstrong's racial identity and relationship with his white, Jewish, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser (also played by Thompson). Slowly we learn how and why Armstrong's stage persona and move away from innovative jazz mainly for black audiences to popular entertaining almost exclusively for whites developed. Glaser wanted the dough and also had to placate his mob partners; he easily exploited Louis, who just wanted to blow–and make people happy, black or white. (Watch part of it here.)
Armstrong was such an ambassador of goodwill it didn't take much arm-twisting. But along with that he lost his creative edge and drew the ire of other black jazz giants, who felt he treated Glaser like his "master" and often acted "minstrely" on stage. Miles Davis (Thompson, again) appears to voice these cruel putdowns. Indeed, most Americans today remember Armstrong for "Hello Dolly," not for the depth of early classics such as "Black and Blue."
But Armstrong counters: He genuinely wanted to please folks. He may have played to segregated audiences in the South–but he was the first to bravely tour there with a mixed-race band. He opened doors for black musicians everywhere (even in Hollywood). And, in one of the best scenes, he recalls famously cursing out President Eisenhower for moving too slow during the Little Rock school integration crisis.
In the end, it's a kind of tragedy within triumph: One of the giants of American history afflicted with doubts that maybe he had let Glaser push him too far from his genius and his race. Yet he remains justly proud of what he did accomplish. And getting ready to delight one more audience, which sadly would be the last.
Below: Early Armstrong with race-based complaint "Black and Blue."