"Satchmo" and "Raisin in the Sun"
by David A. Rosenberg
We’ve come a long way, huh? Things are better, huh? A black family can move into a previously all-white neighborhood. A black musician can stay at the same hotel where he’s entertaining and not have to sleep in his car.
So it goes in Westport’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (time: 1959) and Long Wharf’s ”Satchmo at the Waldorf” (time: 1971). Race relations have improved. Or have they merely been swept under the rug, festering still?
“Raisin” is Lorraine Hansberry’s prophetic, breakthrough work, a slice-of-life play that movingly tells of a Chicago family’s aspirations. Its initial Broadway run of 530 performances led to a hit movie and a musical version, “Raisin.”
At Westport, under Phylicia Rashad’s unrelenting direction, the play would be as absorbing as it was when first produced, except for its radical tonal shift and gobs of preachiness that overshadow the final act. (At Westport, Acts I and II are combined, making for a very long first sit.)
Yet there’s no denying the play’s impact as a realistic work, nor its sharp delineation of characters. It’s prescient about the conflict between being “African-American” and terms like “Negro” or “colored” that are no longer in use.
Here’s Lena Younger (a strong-willed Lynda Gravatt), the family matriarch, now a widow awaiting her husband’s insurance money with which she wishes to buy a house in a restricted neighborhood. Her son, the dream-ridden Walter Lee (a forceful Billy Eugene Jones), has other plans: he wants to invest in a liquor store, a move opposed not only by his mother but his wife Ruth (a sympathetic Susan Kelechi Watson) and sister Beneatha (a wonderful Edena Hines), who wants to be a doctor.
Hansberry spends much of the play sketching out how really “plain” the family is. “We come from people who had a lot of pride,” Walter Lee says to Lindner, the white emissary from all-white Clybourne Park, come to dissuade the Youngers from moving there.
Hansberry includes opposing suitors for Beneatha: one is an upwardly mobile, white shoe type; the other is a Nigerian anxious to claim his African heritage. The author hits points about assimilation, change, freedom and an ever-present sense of history’s slaves, sharecroppers and lynchings.
Those events are also touched upon in “Satchmo,” Terry Teachout’s soulful take on the life and complexities of great trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Taking place in Armstrong’s dressing room at the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria four months before his death, it features a tour-de-force, technically accomplished performance by John Douglas Thompson.
Whether prowling the stage under the weight of years or morphing into his self-satisfied manager, mentor and father figure Joe Glaser, Thompson dazzles not with intellectual tricks but emotional honesty and a commitment to the sometimes foul-mouthed, sickly, exhausted but exhilarated artist.
Ostensibly talking into a tape recorder to preserve incidents he can use in an autobiography, Armstrong ranges back across his life, his hardscrabble upbringing in New Orleans, his move to Chicago and New York, his love of touring, his oneness with his trumpet -- and the prejudices encountered along the way.
Startling is Thompson’s instantaneous transformation into the white, mob-connected Glaser who, inexplicably for Armstrong, seems to be indifferent to his inner needs. Thompson is also, briefly, the condescending Miles Davis.
The 90-minute, intermissionless evening lacks a through line beyond the fact that Glaser (who “picked my pocket”) left Armstrong no money in his will, especially in light of Armstrong’s earning the bread that made Glaser wealthy. As compensation, Gordon Edelstein’s unobtrusive direction forces the audience to concentrate on Armstrong the man, never mind the thinness of action.
Teachout puts Armstrong into a larger context, that of black vs. white. The all-white Waldorf audience looks like “a carton of eggs.” At one point, Armstrong says, “White people ain’t naturally meaner than colored; they just been on top too long.” He expressed concern for the blight of segregation, yet was called an Uncle Tom trying to please and appease whites. In Armstrong’s eyes, he was merely making people happy.
That symbiosis of music and personality was part of Armstrong’s appeal. Still, although he was aware -- was made aware -- of prejudice, it was his music that sustained him. What was heard coming out of his horn was what he was, even when unsure whether he was liked for his artistry or his persona.
“Life was there for me and I accepted it,” he says at the end. In this age, in this climate, is that enough?
These reviews appeared in The Hour, 10/18/12