Since the ancient Greeks knew everything, they were aware of the curse of immense talent; of the hubris that often accompanies it and the dangers of how it can tempt you to fly too close to the sun. Their heroes became heroes in failure and disgrace.
Watch Louis Armstrong stagger into his dressing room in Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf currently playing at the American Conservatory Theater's Geary Stage and you know everything you need to know about how talent and fame can wreck a body and soul. But a more intriguing entrance is Taylor Mac’s in his crazily conceived, A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, on view next door at The Curran.
In the balcony of the Curran, as we sit on the stage and wait just a bit too long for the evening to begin, a spotlight catches Mac in a pose of ridiculous splendor. His three-foot headdress is a rainbow mass of tinkled color; his pose strangely reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty; his dress, unwieldy, garish, and beautiful. Somehow you know that the performer means to devour everything in front of him.
Yet no matter how ferocious Mac’s assault on American song, he is clearly destined to fail—he can’t even make it to the stage without tripping over himself. And that awareness of our shared fragility is a cunning theatrical gambit. Mac turns the tragic into a state of being -- thrilling, alive, and ripe for discovery. And what an odd tragedy it is: the first three hours of an eventual 24 hour performance of American popular music, decade-by-decade starting in 1776. (Mac plans to perform the show in its entirety in New York in October.) Like America itself, the pure folly of Mac’s vision is a headlong rush into disaster.
The first song of the evening is “Amazing Grace” and that signals Mac’s immense ambitions. The set up might seem like a joke, but there’s nothing sly or arch about the vocalist's singing. Mac has great comic timing and often just feels funny. But the power and nimbleness of his voice ventures into wildly different registers. He sings like a hero. And you can’t quite catch whether Mac is more interested in sacrifice or salvation.
So as he cycles through these old American hits, that tension takes on a peculiarly philosophical hew. Mac somehow turns “Yankee Doodle Dandy” into a founding text of American thinking, and then a rueful comment on his own drag. He weaves Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” into song and uncovers the conflicting emotion in the 18th century political activist's ideas that have split the country ever since.
His rendition of the dark folk hymn “I Will” catches the country’s vaulting ambitions and the human cost that it has always demanded. Mac is slight, lithe and sinewy, and you can’t help but think that he has felt the pain of living in a culture that values immensity. Yet here he is before us, becoming grander and grander and grander. He's the strangest and most aware daughter of the revolution we could ever hope for.
Pitched somewhere between revival meeting, art stunt, philosophical lecture, and concert, Mac’s vision is full and alive even in this early state of development. You can feel something immense being born and rumbling towards its eventual destruction. Mac’s a brutal dandy intent on embracing the whole of the country in song and proclaiming, “This is mine!” And then, with greater feeling and Woody Guthrie in the distance, his performance screams “This is ours!” How will we not turn on him? How will he not turn on himself? We’ll see. As for now, his ascension is thrilling theater.
We all turned on Louis Armstrong. We had to. What made the iconic trumpeter and singer great was so viciously entwined in the brutal legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the casual network of political, social, and cultural violence, that he became a necessary victim of changing times. Armstrong’s immense musical talent—he perfected both the jazz solo and scat singing—was chained to a minstrel tradition that he couldn’t help but embrace. It was just too much a part of him, like a diamond permanently encrusted in shit.
If you want to see what a stunning contradiction Armstrong could be, watch the 1932 short, Rhapsody in Black and Blue. His acting and affect are all minstrel show. But when he blows that trumpet you feel the presence of another soul, a different way of being, a way forward. It was as if he was speaking two competing languages that had nothing in common.
In the opening moments of Terry Teachout's Satchmo at the Waldorf, Armstrong shoves an oxygen mask to his face. The image feels right: How could that man even breathe by the end of his life? And at that moment we’re ready for an exorcism. We want to rip him open to see if there’s anything there, to get at the talent and the embarrassment and the degradation of what Armstrong was.
John Douglas Thompson not only plays Armstrong, but also Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Armstrong’s white manager, the mob-connected Joe Glaser. The Canadian-American actor has received great praise for his performance, and Thompson is clearly superb in the role. But what's he really performing? What has Wall Street Journal theater critic, Armstrong biographer, and first-time playwright Teachout given him to do? I would say nothing. The Armstrong he plays is the one we saw, an Uncle Tom with otherworldly talent. It’s an imitation game. And that’s not enough.
Teachout knows the facts. But what the dramatist doesn’t have is any feeling for the disaster of what Armstrong was. By letting him tell his own story—with a few mild critical asides from Davis and Gillespie—he misses the vastness and complexity of a life that somehow represented and continues to haunt the racial imagination of this country. Teachout might understand that intellectually, but he lacks the skill and imagination to bring any of it to theatrical life.
When Armstrong finally leaves the stage with his vaunted optimism in tact, the opening night crowd mightily applauded. But it was a false triumph, one that felt like a betrayal of everything Armstrong achieved and everything that made him an embarrassment. To bury conflict in reconciliation is to turn tragedy into kitsch. But what would you expect from a genre as hoary as the celebrity solo show? If Teachout learned anything from Armstrong, it is the ability to pander without regret. And for that we should bow our heads and refuse to clap.
So what we have in these wildly different productions are two iconic images of America: the Drag Queen and the King of Jazz. And like in chess, it is the Queen who has all the moves and daring, while the King plods from square to square dodging pawns. Maybe one day, or perhaps even towards the end of A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, Taylor Mac might play Louis Armstrong and set the famed jazz musician free in all his talent and ugliness. Then, and only then, might we feel the truth of Armstrong and the sting and pleasures of a real American tragedy.
The first six hours, or decades, of Taylor Mac's A 24 Decade History of Popular Music plays through Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.sfcurran.com.
Satchmo at the Waldorf plays at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater in San Francisco through Sunday, Feb. 7. For tickets and information visit www.act-sf.org.