One night in the spring of 1986 a salesman in New Haven named John Douglas Thompson was stood up by his date. So he went alone to see August Wilson‘s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Yale Rep. It changed his life.
Twenty-six years later Thompson has returned to New Haven for a different kind of date—onstage, as an actor.
Through Nov. 4 Thompson will appear on the Long Wharf theater stage, where he takes on the challenge of his first one-man show, Satchmo at the Waldorf. The show, Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout’s first play, and based on the life of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
As Thompson sipped green tea at Book Trader before rehearsal, he explained his transformation from salesman to renowned actor.
Roll the clock ahead a number of years from that red-letter date, when Thompson was living at the Taft Hotel, still selling computer services to the financial industry for the Unisys Corporation.
Finding himself out of work in a spate of corporate layoffs, he remembered that the Wilson play and the catalytic effect it had on him. “Time for me to try out this dream,” he recalled telling himself.
That involved some “transferable skills” from having been a salesman, but new steps were required.
Twenty-nine years old, he went up to Providence and signed up for training at Trinity Repertory Theater. “I was increasingly engaged [in the mysterious art of acting]. I said ‘Listen, God, make me an actor.’”
Thompson’s prayer has by all available evidence been answered, with a growing reputation as a classical actor of rare talent.
Thompson speaks of theater, and of his current role of Louis Armstrong, almost with a reverence.
“I do theater for the honor of performing for an audience,” he said.
He has played Lear and Othello and appeared most recently with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy in The Iceman Cometh. That was different from his new challenge in New Haven, where he performs alone for 90 minutes, playing three roles: perhaps the greatest jazz musician of all time, and a character whose life Thompson calls “Shakespearean”; his mob-connected, gun-toting, racial-slur-spouting manager Joe Glaser, and Miles Davis.
“It’s just you. I’ve learned it requires a great deal of physical, emotional, and mental stamina,” he revealed. “And there’s no intermission!”
The experience of being up there all by himself has distilled his acting and especially has honed his listening, he said.“The audience is my stage partner. You become focused on them. You listen. You see their body language.”
Another journey for Thompson has been to see far beyond the happy image of Armstrong that most Americans know from his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and as the voice of “Hello Dolly” and the many other songs that Armstrong transformed with the precise clarity of his notes, his “scat” and his language.
All that is the tip of the iceberg of a man whom Thompson characterizes as blessed with a natural generosity and joy. That comes through not only in the music but in the gift envelopes of $1,000, the equivalent of $10,000 today, which Armstrong regularly distributed to fellow musicians and friends in need.
Yet Armstrong was also riven by the racial indignities of his era. He was haunted by accusations of Uncle Tom-ish behavior leveled by other African-Americans who argued that an icon of Armstrong’s international renown could have done more.
In the end, though, there is joy.
Thompson leaned back in his chair and scrolled through his iPhone, which, he said, contains 95 percent of all Armstrong’s songs: “Coronet Chop Suey,” “Dipper Mouth,” “Texas Gut Bucket.”
“Even [just saying] these titles make you smile,” he said.
Then he excused himself and went off to rehearsal.
After kicking off the Long Wharf’s new season, Satchmo at the Waldorf goes to the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia later in the fall.