This Month Q&A: John Douglas Thompson
"Satchmo at the Waldorf," now at Long Wharf Theatre, introduces New Haven audiences to an explosive stage talent.
Call it a “Cinderella-cum-Andy Hardy” story. In 1986, a marketing sales rep for Wallingford’s Unisys catches a brand-new play by August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre. It’s only the second play he’s ever seen, but by the closing curtain, this 22-year-old is convinced of one thing—he’s going to be an actor. Fast-forward 26 years. John Douglas Thompson, recently lauded as “the greatest stage actor of his generation” by The New York Times, has played roles in Broadway productions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Julius Caesar and starred in Macbeth, Othello (which earned him an Obie) and The Emperor Jones off Broadway. This month, he makes his Long Wharf Theatre debut in Satchmo at the Waldorf, Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout’s one-act, one-man, two-character play about the fractious, decades-long relationship between Louis Armstrong and his manager Joe Glaser. The show plays through Nov. 11 on Stage II; for more information call 203/787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
How did this project cross your radar?
Well Terry, the playwright, had contacted me about taking a look at his play. I di, and it seemed reall fascinating, because on the one hand I didn't really know that much about Armstrong. The little I knew was totally expounded upon once I read the play. The play reminded me about the lack of knowledge I had on this man, particularly the private man, the man behind the smile. This took the veil off, if you will, and made him really interesting. It started me on this journey of doing a lot of research about Armstrong—I happen to live in Brooklyn, and the Armstrong house is in Corona, Queens, which is about 45 minutes by train and bus. The Queens College Library, not too far from his home, stores all his tapes, videos, books and letters. It's all Armstrong all the time.
So I started hitting that place, and once I did, it opened me up even more to Armstrong. Terry wrote this play based upon on a lot of audio recordings that Armstrong made—over 1500 hours of his life. Terry was the first journalist to have access to those. So you find in his biography of Armstrong, and certainly in this this play, that there's a nakedness to what people learn about the man, beyond the public persona. The play gives Armstrong his full humanity and complexity, which I feel he was denied as a public figure, the amazing public figure that he was.
On the flip side, you're also playing Louis' manager. Where did you get your information about him?
Joe Glaser is a real person, but Terry fictionalized his character a little bit more. So my information about him came out of books that I've read. I also talked to some people who knew Glaser or had run-ins with him, who could give me some idea what his persona was like on a day-to-day basis, how he handled himself and his clients. He's from the Al Capone era—the entertainment industry at that time was run by a lot of people with nefarious backgrounds. The artists at that time, by definition, had mob connections; if you wanted a show business career you had to play by their rules. Armstrong was one of the major artists who came up in the `30s. So the play examines the fascinating, complex, symbiotic relationship of these two men, who both made each other incredibly wealthy millionaires. But the relationship was still fractious and tenuous, and that's what Terry is trying to capture in the play. So I'm playing characters who are polar opposites not just in color, but ideology. Weaving in and out of them is quite interesting and very, very challenging.
We all have a picture of Armstrong in our mind, but Glaser is relatively unknown to us. How do you approach putting them across? What are the salient qualities that you're trying to communicate?
Well, first of all, for me as an actor I think theater is a medium of words, of language. Until film or TV, which are built on images. In that respect, it's very, very helpful to me that Terry's written a good play, that captures the rhythm of how Armstrong talked and how he expressed himself, and he's done the same with Glaser. So my function is really to follow those rhythms and play them. I'm not trying to imitate either person—I couldn't imitate Glaser if I wanted to. I'm not looking to imitate the characters, I'm looking for their essence. These two men were multifaceted, so you try to capture what's in the writing and the situation. It's like a legacy play; like Louis Armstrong is debating with the audience as to what his legacy was, what it's gonna be, the choices he made in his life and the prices he paid. The biggest consequence was his realationship with Joe Glaser: Did he ultimately gain anything from it or lose? I mean, it was a 40-year relationship.
I ended up feeling differently about Glaser at the end of the piece than the beginning. I started out thinking here's this guy who's just a hustler, but by the end, when you find out what the consequences were for him—and why he did what he had to do—your perspective on the relationship changes. He's just as trapped as Armstrong.
Yes. I don't want to say too much about it, but I'm glad to hear your view. You get to see his humanity, when up to that point you're willing to write him off as someone who was abusive and took advantage of Armstrong. That's a wonderful, surprising element of the play, and as the actor playing it, it's also exciting for me.
What scares you most about doing this?
Oh . . . everything! [laughs] You live in fear. As a performer, I'm always terrified, whether it's this kind of story or a play that's already been established, a classic or contemporary play that's been produced many times. I think people might already have their own impressions fixed in their minds, but I think that's what's exciting about this because it gives you something else to think about, to add to your picture of the man. But it's also scary doing a play like this, because he's a well-known figure, beloved and revered throughout the world. Hopefully, it'll engender a lot of discussion and debate. What I love about this play is that it resurrects this man for me in a way that's quite beautiful, and absolutely deserved and necessary.
I did read something where you said your perspective on him when you were younger was that he was nothing special. What have you come to decided was his greatest significance?
After starting the research—which never really ends—I fell in love with this guy, I have to say. From the music and the TV interviews I watched to the countless hours of tape I listened to, and going through the house, and downloading music from iTunes, and ordering DVDs of his European concerts. One of his greatest assets was his generosity and love of humankind. It was real for him; he had this big heart which you don't really see nowadays. And he was caught in the crossroads of the Civil Rights movement. He broke down the barriers people like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie—who were very critical of his persona, they accused him of Uncle Tomming and clowning—have benefited from.
I was talking to some musicians about Armstrong recently, some trumpet players. Told them, "I'd love to have you guys teach me some trumpet, just some basic stuff, because I don't play." I don't play in the show, bit i thought it would be nice to know something about the instrument, how to carry it. S o I started to talk to them about Armstrong's music. They were in awe of him, and told me, "Listen, we can't do wehat he did; he created notes that we don't even have registered. They don't have notes for what he played." It's so difficult to codify what he did because his discipline on the trumpet was Godlike. He played from a place in himself that separated him from all other artists of his time.
I understand that before you pursued acting, you worked for Unisys in Wallingford. What exactly did you do there?
I worked in marketing and sales. My title was marketing rep.
Then everything changed when you went to Yale Repertory Theatre one night.
I saw a production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. It was a botched date—my date didn't show up. If I hadn't gone, I don't know that I would have had that catalytic experience that moved me so. I had never seen African Americans onstage in those numbers, in that capacity. It was an all black cast. Not that I'd been to the theater that much, anyway. I felt like this is for me, this is directed at me, these are the themes of my life. The concepts and perceptions of my life seem to be here. These people are living it. That focused my attention right off the bat. And the story and those words were so incredibly powerful. To this day, I've never seen acting that profound.
You know when you see great theater and you're just walking on air afterward? I didn't understand that feeling, but that was the first time I've had it. I felt like the molecules in my body had shifted, that someone opened my mind to a grand new paradigm that I had never even understood existed. I went back to work the next day, I knew from that moment—it was so clear—that that's what I wanted to be. Then I got laid off, which allowed me to pursue my new dream. I could probably have found a new job with IBM or Honeywell, but I knew that that was the time to change. So I went into it boldly.
The other thing is, it's really profound to see people who either look like you or reminds you of you in something that moves you that way. it just opens the door and reminds you that you can do it too. Do you know how many African American politicians there are going to be in the next 20 years because of the inspiration of Barack Obama? Countless. I remember crying when he made his acceptance speech. And sometimes I'd see him walking to Air Force One, and it was just moving. I never thought something like that would happen in my lifetime, you know? So that was the kind of event that happened to me at Yale Rep, it was something that shifted my mindset.
And theater is one of those things, if it speaks to you it's beyond anything. Some people never get captured by it, but if you do, you never get over it.
You're absolutely right. Once you have that feeling—and it's not like you get it every time you go back to the theater. You're always in search of it, and sometimes you're disappointed, but it's still worth it to keep going because you just might get it again. And it's worth the effort, it's worth the money, it's worth the travel—it's worth all the stuff it takes to get to the theater. I just did a production of The Iceman Cometh, and it was a profound experience for me just being an actor onstage, listening. And it's so moving, the writing of O'Neill, that I would be in tears. That's why I had this experience of being an actor onstage, but also an audience member at the same time. That's never happened to me, when I've been able to hear the play and be in the play at the same time.
And this production was in Chicago with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, who a great interpreter of O'Neill.
He goes really deep with the work; he's a very intelligent actor and very game. He always brings it, as does Nathan Lane. They always go at it 120 percent, because they don't know any other way, and you neeed that kind of commitment, or the audience won't have that transformational experience. So I'm spending all this time around them and watching them go deep all the time, and I realize that's what it is, that's what the actors in Joe Turner gave me. So I thank them from the bottom of my heart. I hope I can do 10 percent of what those actors did for me, then I'd feel like I'm doing all right.
You certainly have received a great deal of acclaim as a Shakespearian actor. What is it about Shakespeare that touches you?
Well, it always starts with the language; the words. It's the depth of the poetry, which can go right to our souls, and how that informs the character and the performance.And the universal humanity that's on every one of Shakespeare's pages. It teaches you about your own humanity. In some ways, I think that poetry is the highest height that mankind can reach. I find that Shakespeare's work is art at that level, so if you get to perform it, you get to experience an evolution, your own personal evolution. I think all writers, borrow, take and steal from Shakespeare. He's the architect of the written word, and of formulating the written word into a play.
He's another example of someone, I think, who either captures you totally, or doesn't. He had me at "hello."
Me, too. Just the fact that his writing is hundreds of years old, and he still was able to capture what we are now as contemporary human beings—our love, anger, compassion, forgiveness. If I want to learn about myself, the world that I live in, I read Shakespeare. The two most important books, I think, are the Bible and Riverside Shakespeare.
You've said you're interested in doing Hamlet.
I've wanted to do Hamlet for a while. Part of my reason is, I've seen a number of productions, and have seen an African American play the role maybe once. On one level, that sends out a very twisted and contorted message that it shouldn't be played by those actors. I'm really into non-traditional casting, and I've tried to build some of my own classical career on that—playing roles that I rarely see people who look like me playing. That's very important to me. Hamlet is one of those roles: I know the impact of seeing people like me do the things I aspire to do. It's really about trying to communicate some level of inspiration, providing inspiration to others.
There should be more female Hamlets. I'm a little pissed off that I don't see that. And not just Hamlet, but Richard III and King Lear. We need to open this thing wide for everyone to do . . . when we do that, we'll really see the impact of Shakespeare. People who don't understand him will start to, because they'll see themselves in him.
Another thing I've read is that you've been studying comedy. You're studying clowning.
I've been doing that with Christopher Bayes of the Yale Drama School, as my schedule permits. That's primarily to give myself another set of tools as I approach Shakespeare's comedies, like the Malvolios, Benedicks and Falstaffs of the world. I just want to expand my craft set so I can take on those works.
I don't want to be afraid of it; anything you approach in the rehearsal room should be done with some level of fearlessness. You should just dive in and embarrass yourself—open yourself up to failure. It's kind of exciting because I don't know what's going to happen; I'm not trying to control it. I just want to see how it will manifest itself in me and what I can do with it.
In taking this journey, what would you say is the most important thing it's taught you about yourself?
Generosity. I mean, I know that sounds kind of trite, but the whole experience is truly about generosity when I'm onstage. It's how much can I give to my scene partner; what can I do with them to make this better. And what can to the play; the audience. That's what opens the door for transformation, not only in the performer but in those people watching the performer.
And does that make you more open in the rest of your life?
I think so! I feel like I've been developing along that path of being a more open person, trying to achieve that state in my life. It's important to me, and I feel very grateful to be in this profession that continually teaches me how to do that, and reminds me what that really is.This Month Q&A: John Douglas Thompson