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Louis Armstrong comes to life in a one-man play at the Court Theatre

A man who has for years written for the Wall Street Journal has further spread his writing chops, so to speak, in the one-man play that is currently premiering at the Court Theatre. “Satchmo at the Waldorf” tells the story about the end of the trumpet master’s career, and stage and screen star Barry Shabaka Henley is great in his turn as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.

And while it’s a one-man play, Henley not only brings Satchmo to life but he also brings Armstrong’s Jewish manager Joe Glaser and Jazz great Miles Davis to life, as well.

The greatest trumpet player in the world has just finished a set in the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. It’s 1971, and Armstrong is at the end of his incredibly successful career. After retiring backstage, he begins to reminisce about his life, revealing an intimate, unknown portrait of the man behind the trumpet and the ever-evolving struggle to live with dignity as a Black musician in a white world.

Henley embarks on an emotional journey of deep friendship and its tragic destruction, while sharing with audience members an intimate exploration of Armstrong’s life, legacy, and above all, the music genre of Jazz.

In the play, Armstrong recounts how he escaped extreme poverty in New Orleans at a young age and met Glaser, who was new at the game of managing musicians. Consequently, Armstrong’s “rags to riches” story reveals that Glaser made his name off of Armstrong, along with many other musicians who came after him.

The play was written by WSJ writer Terry Teachout, who also wrote Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Said Teachout: “It means the world to me to see Satchmo at the Waldorf being produced in Chicago, America’s greatest theater town—and I’m thrilled beyond words to be working with Charles [Newell, director] and Shabaka, both of whom are artists of the first rank. I think we’re going to have a fabulous time!”

The Court’s production of Satch-

mo is part of a community-wide Louis Armstrong Festival, happening in partnership with The Beverly Arts Center, The Logan Center at the University of Chicago, The Promontory, South Shore Jazz Coalition, The Louis Armstrong House Museum and the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College New York. This festival will help audiences deepen their understanding of Armstrong’s life through musical performances, historical exhibits, symposium, talk-backs and film.

Says Court Executive Director Stephen Albert: “Court was excited by Terry’s play and his book Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. When we were granted the permission for this Chicago premiere, I visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Coro-

na Queens, New York, which led to the recognition of how rich Armstrong’s life was and a festival was needed to truly capture the range of his music and impact on American culture.”

Henley is fantastic in this play, and he weaves back and forth from Armstrong and his manager, when the manager tries to explain some of the decisions that he had made on Armstrong’s behalf, as well as explaining the kinship between Armstrong and his manager. There is a particularly poignant scene when Henley discusses Armstrong’s stance on the Little Rock Nine and the federal mandate to desegregate public schools.

At a time when Armstrong began singing, the play reveals, that some of the younger musicians felt that he was “kowtowing” to whites with his comedic banter and mannerisms on stage. Henley imitates Davis as one of the musicians who reportedly criticized Armstrong’s on-stage actions.

It’s not that Armstrong wanted to dismiss his early years in the Jim Crow South and forget the negative things that he grew up with and/or experienced when he was travelling as a musician through racists parts of the nation. He simply wanted to just play his trumpet, and he left all the other details up to his manager.

And while some can recall Armstrong playing and singing and bringing joy to the listener or audience, the play was wrought with sadness as Henley shared Armstrong’s pain and disappointment with his manager.

For information about the play, which runs until February 7, and other events around this program, visit

New Colony’s Byhalia, Mississippi, at the Den Theatre

Playing at the Den Theatre on North Milwaukee Avenue until February 14 is New Colony’s first play of its 2016 season. Jim and Laurel Parker are about to become new parents. They are broke. They are loud. They are “proud white trash.” When Laurel finally gives birth to their overdue child, she and Jim are faced with the biggest challenge of their lives: their baby boy is Black, the result of Laurel’s affair the previous year. The lives of their families and friends are thrown into turmoil in Byhalia, Mississippi, a town with a racially-charged past that still affects its present.

This play is, in fact, a collaboration, or World Premiere Conversation” between New Colony and Definition Theatre Company. “We are thrilled to partner on this project with Definition – one of the most exciting new companies on the Chicago theater scene,” comments Co-Artistic Director Andrew Hobgood. “This is a story that means a great deal to both of our companies, and collaborating with them for the past year has been critical to developing this script to its final draft.”

Adds Director Tyrone Phillips: “Evan Linder has created a provocative reflection of our current social climate and our companies are the perfect match to tell this story. After producing the world premiere of ‘Genesis by Definition’ ensemble member Mercedes White, I look forward to breathing life into another future classic.”

The Den is located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. For more information, visit

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information or email:

Keywords: Community theater, Henley, Louis Armstrong, Play, Satchmo

Posted in Community Highlights