Passionate Raconteur: Danny Mullen’s take on Louis Armstrong will offer an intimate night of theatre
A one-man show is a brave undertaking for any actor to endure. Little lies between the artist and audience, aside from a set. There aren’t other actors to help carry the show, meaning the script must be well-written and impactful, and the artist performing it must know every nuance of the character. Charlotte thespian Danny Mullen is powerful in Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s “Backstage with Louis Armostrong,” which is being produced for only six shows over two weekends, with its final run this Friday through Sunday.
Mullen wrote the script, which takes on the famed New Orleans jazz musician, as he greets fans, i.e. the audience, in his dressing room after a performance in North Dakota. It’s something Armstrong was known to do: host luminaries, politicians and celebrities, as well as everyday folks, after his concerts. “Backstage with Louis Armstrong” is an up, close and personal portrayal of Satchmo, complete with that signature gruff voice and boisterous laugh. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Mullen’s portrayal is the dichotomy we see between the funny man Armstrong was onstage, as he inserted jokes and quips into his performance, and the darker, more introspective man whose troubled upbringing molded a great deal of his life. Mullen carefully walks the audience through his past in a non-linear fashion—through the destitution of being reared by a single mother, who turned to prostitution to feed her family, to meeting a helpful, white Jewish family, the Karnofskys, who bought his first horn and encouraged his playing, to finding a mentor in Joe “King” Oliver, the main person Armstrong forever remained indebted to for an inspiring career.
Though everyone expects a bio of Armstrong to be filled with music—and it is—what’s most surprising of this script is Mullen’s in-depth research. He set the show in 1957, right in the midst of Armstrong’s stance against the mistreatment of black students in the South—specifically the Little Rock Nine, nine students who attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School but were prevented from then-governor, Orval Faubus. Armstrong was set to tour the U.S.S.R., as asked by President Eisenhower, at the time, as a good will of sorts to help bridge the gap between the struggles of eastern Europe and the U.S.
Born at the turn of the 20th century, Armstrong was from a family of slaves. Many African Americans of the time criticized him for not publicly taking more of a stance for civil rights; some, specifically Dizzie Gillespie, even called him Uncle Tom, as Armstrong always remained grateful to the white folks who helped propel his career. He was one of the main black performers of the day whose audiences made up mostly white people, and even his own race accused him of denigrating their heritage.
Yet, the Little Rock Crisis was a major change in the celebrity, politicizing right and wrong. He found it despicable that a white teacher would spit in the face of a black student just for entering school. At the time, the student should have been protected by Brown v. Board of Education—a law in 1953 that found segregation in schools unconstitutional, and required the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. Satchmo was in the midst of a media junket and when a reporter asked him about the Little Rock Nine, the musician was very vocal about his disappointment in the way the president was allowing his race to be treated. He told the reporter the president should be down in Little Rock, publicly escorting in the nine black students to set an example of solidarity. He also told the press he would not be touring Russia.
It seems at this point in the play, it would have been a perfect introduction to Mullen taking on Armstrong’s powerful “When It’s Sleepytime Down South,” yet it wasn’t included. Audiences do hear the standards as expected: “Moon River,” “What a Wonderful World,” “C’est Le Bon,” and even an unexpected and wonderful “Sunrise, Sunset,” compliments of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s an effective nod to Armstrong’s gratitude to the Karnofsky family (he even wore a Star of David cross throughout his life).
Mullen’s interjection of passion truly carries the performance. He becomes all the stories he is telling, which are illuminating, chilling, and fulfill a rounded picture of a human’s trials and tribulations, successes and highlights, at least as much as it can over 90 minutes. Some details are left out, like his third and fourth wives, and his adopted disabled son, whom Armstrong took care of his whole life. Still, the show is intimately moving, thanks to a natural raconteur who utilizes props to carefully and thoughtfully animate Armstong, including his passion for food (he makes gumbo while decompressing from the show) and even his gastro-intestinal troubles (he sips on laxatives throughout the show). Mullen truly engages the crowd, addressing them with staunch eye contact and exasperated introspection.
The downfall of the show unfortunately comes in the singing and the music. Though Mullen gives it his all, harmonies fall flat and the scatting isn’t up to par. The beauty of Armstrong is that his gravelly voice wasn’t without vocal perfection; he hit notes that always were crisp and clear. More so, the sound system mutely plays the powerful horns and jazz sounds that should jubilate the whole theatre. A full band would bring this show to life, and insert the zest and zeal needed to match Mullen’s phenomenal storytelling. Also, it would help invigorate the single scene we see the jazz trumpeteer “blow” his horn, which really needs to jounce the audience into believing how his power of music affected jazz as a whole. (As an aside: Hearing Armstrong’s take on new jazz that was coming of age then—jazz that didn’t carry much harmony or melody, in his opinion, and I can’t help but think he may have been referring to the likes of Miles Davis—also piques interest and sets up a lot of conversation about where this music came from and where it’s gone.)
Still, “Backstage with Louis Armstrong” is worth the price of admission. Music lovers will revel in it, as will anyone who enjoys biographies and wants to learn more about a small pocket in our long, harried history of civil rights.
Backstage with Louis Armstrong
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace St. • browncoattheatre.com
March, 27-29, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 4:30 p.m.