John Douglas Thompson Brings Satchmo Alive

Virtuoso actor John Douglas Thompson brings Louis Armstrong to life in Satchmo at the Waldorf at TheatreWorks. Meet the man behind the stellar performance.

John Douglas Thompson as Satchmo
John Douglas Thompson as Satchmo. Photo by T. Charles Erikson.

Despite performing the title roles in Othello, Richard III and Tamburlaine (a two-part, four-hour show, by the way), the hardest role John Douglas Thompson has played so far is that of Louis Armstrong in the one-man show Satchmo at the Waldorf. It’s the very role he’ll reprise in February at TheatreWorks.

While Satchmo doesn’t require the same challenges of Shakespeare or Marlowe, with only Thompson on stage, it’s on him to keep the pacing just right, to catalyze the play’s energy and to keep the audience captivated.

“I would say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Easily,” Thompson says. “You start to realize as you’re rehearsing the play, ‘Oh my god, it’s just me. I don’t have a break. I don’t go off for intermission and rest. I don’t have another actor coming onstage to give me a breather. It’s all me, whether I’m Louis Armstrong or Joe Glaser or Miles Davis. It’s a continuum; it’s all me.’”

Thompson is revered by some as the foremost American classical actor performing today, no small feat especially given that Thompson got into the game relatively late in life—at age 28—after working as a traveling salesman. All that changed upon seeing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which inspired him to enroll in acting school several years later when his job fell victim to an economic downturn.

Satchmo at the Waldorf

Catch the must-see show at TheatreWorks, Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, Feb. 18–March 6.

Satchmo, written by Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, finds Armstrong months before his death. Set in his dressing room after a gig, he reminisces about his life. Now and then, the portrait changes, and Thompson switches into the characters of Miles Davis and Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser.

“Armstrong’s 70 years old, so there’s a whole physicality and voice for him,” Thompson says. “Joe Glaser’s probably about 10 years younger, but he’s different: He’s a white guy. He’s Jewish. He’s very aggressive. He used to be a mobster, so that’s a whole different physicality and representation for that character. And then you have Miles Davis, who’s probably in his 40s around that time…. I’m constantly switching from one to the other, so it’s very intense.”

Although Thompson has mastered the role—the Los Angeles Times called his performance at the Wallis Annenberg Center “meticulous and passionate”—his studies of Armstrong’s life and music are never complete.

“How can I make this even clearer? How can I make it more engaging?” he says of his process. “Because it’s all about storytelling, right? Being an even better storyteller.”

—by Edie Adelstein