Writer and arts critic Terry Teachout first encountered jazz great Louis Armstrong on "The Ed Sullivan Show" — thanks to his mother. It was the mid-1960s, and Armstrong was singing "Hello, Dolly!"
He recalls: "My mom called me in and said, 'This man won't live forever. I want you to remember him.'"
Teachout remembered, all right.
In 2009, he wrote "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," which was lauded by The Washington Post, The Economist and The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year.
Now he has written a play about Armstrong, "Satchmo at the Waldorf," which will make its world premiere Thursday in Orlando. Noted local actor Dennis Neal will star in the one-man show as both Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser. Veteran director Rus Blackwell will direct.
Teachout says it's because of the Blackwell-Neal team.
The two, both co-founders of Orlando's Mad Cow Theatre, came on board to prepare a 45-minute preview version as part of the Winter Park Institute's program of arts and cultural learning last winter. Teachout, The Wall Street Journal's drama critic, has an ongoing relationship with the institute, whose programs are presented through Rollins College.
The preview boosted Teachout's confidence in the piece: "It was the first time I really felt like I had something that would work." He was also impressed by Blackwell and Neal's interpretation of the play, Teachout's first.
The two Central Floridians also had fallen for the show — and they asked Teachout for the chance to be involved in a full staging.
"The three of us sat over a meal of red beans and rice," Neal recalls. "I said, 'Terry, I want to do this play. Can I do it?' We talked and walked away with him saying, 'Yeah, you can do it.'"
"Not to put too fine a point on it," says Teachout, laughing, "but I said, 'Hell, yes!'"
The enthusiasm and mutual admiration have colored the project — in conversation, all three men pepper their remarks with praise for one another.
"As soon as we finished [the preview performance] I looked at Terry, and I was beaming. I loved it," Neal says.
"He is uncanny," Teachout says of Neal. "What a stroke of luck Rollins College dropped him in my lap."
Of course, Neal's enthusiasm only took him so far. It's his first time performing in a one-man show, and he quickly discovered how much work that is.
"When I printed the script out, it was 60-something pages. Learning it has been a bear," Neal says. "I'm up with this thing at 3 or 4 in the morning."
Compounding the difficulty is the play's setup, which requires Neal to portray not only Armstrong, but Joe Glaser — Armstrong's white manager. Race is certainly part of the story as Armstrong, one of the foremost black musicians of his time, often played in the still-segregated South.
Neal thinks his characterizations will let the audience see beyond his own race.
"Armstrong was dark-complected, and I'm not dark-complected," he says. "Glaser was Jewish and white, I'm certainly not Jewish and white."
The men's relationship was complex, and it's that tension that drives the play, Teachout says.
"You have Armstrong's idealism and Glaser's brutal realism about how the entertainment industry works," Teachout says. "It's a play about the business of art and what it takes to make a very talented man a celebrity."
Along the way, audiences will see a different side of Armstrong, whose public persona was a genial, joking showman. That good-natured persona, especially when he appeared to be catering to a white audience, drew criticism from fellow African-Americans that he was an "Uncle Tom."
"People have this idea that Louis Armstrong was kind of a court jester of jazz," Teachout says. "But he was capable of great anger — and he was far from being an Uncle Tom. He hated being called that."
The racial factor meant Neal had to work to understand the thought processes of both his characters.
"Glaser slings around all the racial epithets, but he loves Armstrong," he says. "Louis loves Joe, but he knows his position as a 'colored man.'"
Teachout had access to private diary-like tapes of Armstrong, which helped him capture the man's spirit. The show, though based on facts, is a fictionalized tale of an evening late in Armstrong's career.
"The events described in the play basically happened as described," Teachout says. "But I've tried to do something that a biographer can't do, quite rightly being bound by fact."
Neal stresses he won't be doing a Louis Armstrong impersonation; rather, he'll be evoking his spirit.
While working on the show, Neal has drawn strength from personal memories. His stepfather was songwriter Jesse Stone, who died in 1999 and was a pioneer in working with classic R&B and rock musicians.
"I heard a lot about Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra from him," Neal says. "And my mother was a singer and used to talk about him."
Neal's mother, Evelyn McGee Stone, died in May while he was working on "Satchmo at the Waldorf."
"This play, and working on it, has profoundly impacted me because it has caused me to think about them more consciously than I normally would in my day-to-day life," he says.
As director, Blackwell faces his own challenges, too.
"It's 60 pages of one guy talking — even if he's playing two people. What are you going to do besides stand there and talk?" he says. "The pressure for me is 'Am I going to do my best?' Because that's all I've got."
Teachout, who has written the librettos for two operas, is excited to see the finished product, especially because it's his first play. He has critiqued hundreds of plays in his career — but now the shoe is on the other foot.
"I know what it's like to be on the other side of the machine gun," he says. "I hope it's made me a better critic. I think it has. I understand better how the process works."
He'll be in the opening-night audience.
"I don't worry about failing," Neal says, "but I don't want to disappoint him."
"That's the pressure," Blackwell chimes in.
Teachout isn't worried.
"I hope people find it exciting," he says. "I know they'll be excited about Dennis; he's like a lit firecracker on stage. I know I couldn't be in better hands."
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'Satchmo at the Waldorf'
'Satchmo at the Waldorf'
•What: A new one-man play imagining an evening with Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout
•When: Opens Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 2
•Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
•Tickets: $20; $16 students and seniors
•Call: 407-405-8091Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun