19 August 2007

Ambassador Satch... and all that jazz

June 30 - July 13, 2007
Issue 26

They came here – for the first time in the Middle East – not only to change the image America has through one man’s life and music. But more so, to become Ambassadors of Goodwill like Louis Armstrong had been. “Louis Armstrong, as an individual, influenced the world in the name of America more than any individual in the history of entertainment,” said Andre De Shields, main actor and co-author of the two-hour musicale, Ambassador Satch, which was performed at Sheikh Khalifa Auditorium at the UAE University Medical School, June 27.

“There are many other people who contributed to the gift of music from America to the world, but none of them lived as long as Louis Armstrong, none of them has a reputation that lasted like Louis Armstrong’s, no one has influenced generations of younger musicians as Louis Armstrong did, and no other name is indelibly associated with the creation of jazz than Louis Armstrong,” he added.

The play also starred Harriet Foy who portrayed all four of Armstrong’s wives, Terry Waldo who is the Musical Director, Mercedes Ellington who is the Director, and Stanton Davis who plays the trumpet like Armstrong would have. James P. Mirrione co-wrote the play.

“Louis Armstrong’s music makes people happy, and that’s what the world needs. It’s a bomb. It’s an elixir. It’s a magical potion [that] when you hear a Louis Armstrong, you smile,” he added. “And Louis Armstrong’s greatest effect was achieved like this, in the presence of another live human being. He’s no longer with us - his flesh and body is no longer with us. But his spirit is. His music is. And the joy that it generates is. All you need is a channel for it to be brought to the people who want to live in the period where he lived. We serve as that channel.”

“The show is called Ambassador Satch because Louis Armstrong was an Ambassador of Goodwill. Wherever he went, he left goodwill. [And] that is so important for the world when there is so much intolerance, when there is so much hate, when there is so much war, when there is so much bad activity, when there is so much bad feeling, and when there is so much hostility. We are waging peace and goodwill through his acts.”

But what they are doing is not easy and what they are trying to achieve is hard to attain. “Portraying him and presenting his whole life in a play is difficult because the man’s life is so expansive and so extravagant, and he continues to influence generations of other musicians. So it is very important that when telling his story, which is so wide, that you narrow the focus to a theme that includes most people.”

“Most people know about his music such as What A Wonderful World. But his discography is 71 years long. He was born at the turn of the century, and for his entire life, he was the greatest symbol of American jazz. Our purpose is to select the highlights of his life that most people can relate to so that the story that we tell resonates in everybody’s heart. But you cannot please everybody.”

There is also a struggle when the actors took part in Ambassador Satch. “Certainly the actors should have great affinity for the character. Although it is not our goal to mimic Louis Armstrong, one has to appreciate the symbol he was for America along with having a love of music since he was the innovator of jazz, which is America’s version of classical music.”

“Also, Louis Armstrong was not formally trained as a musician and he was not formally educated. His genius is spontaneous, a gift, while most of us in this industry have trained in order to acquire our craft. So one has to be able to know him from the inside, intuitively. One has to be a channel for his spirit, and not worry too much of the actor’s personality to the play. Otherwise, you will be just editorializing what you should be doing in representing his generosity of spirit.”

Sometimes, they also need to change the flow of Armstrong’s story. “Every audience displays a different personality. The response of a mature audience will be different from the response of high school students. Sometimes, the audience is Armstrong’s contemporaries so they have higher expectations. In this case, we will have an Arab audience so there are certain issues that we are not going to deal with so that we do not offend the people here who are more conservative and more cautious.”

But of all the challenges the artists face in carrying out the play is to make their audience believe that what they are saying is true and that what they are acting actually took place. “The audience will know if you are telling the truth or not. Their hearts will tell them that… So I researched. And then I test if the audience will respond to us lovingly, and they do, because that is what we are giving away to them. If we were giving away hypocrisy or falsehoods, then they would respond to us negatively. That is how I know we are giving joy and we are in the right track of how we present his life.”

“We will not be leaving a false impression of Louis Armstrong. We will only peak the interest, the curiosity. If we can just open up the flower of curiosity, and then people can find out about him on their own and take in the information, so that the next time they have an opportunity to be exposed to him as a piece of entertainment, then they can take it in larger doses. You see, we’re following the Mary Poppin’s Approach, which is a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. And there is a lot of medicine here. We would just add a little sugar coating to it.”

But even though their task is demanding, De Shields still enjoys it. “I like singing What A Wonderful World because that is the culmination of his life. Now, certainly, the four wives are important, because in each of the four wives, he became a different man. He matures, he grows, and he expands. He reveals a new skill. But the anthem, the statement, the message that he was sending is in that one song. And that brings me more satisfaction everytime that we do it.”

“I don’t need to be like Louis Armstrong. I don’t need to be the man. I don’t need to have his talent, but I would like to learn his gift of bringing light to where there was once darkness. I want to be able to come into a situation where there is hate and leave love, where there is injury and leave healing, where there is despair and leave hope, where there is darkness and leave light, where there is doubt and leave faith. That’s genius. That’s being great. That’s being useful and having a purpose.”

“Louis Armstrong wants to teach us that we have to surrender to our destiny and not resist the lessons that result from our mistakes. You see, mistakes are not to be regretted. Problems are not to be regretted. Hard times, difficulties are not to be regretted. They have to be experienced and lived through because no problem comes without a gift. If we can learn that, then we would learn the greatest lesson in life.”

His dream of turning Ambassador Satch into a commercial product in Broadway and a piece under the Cannon of Musical Literature keeps De Shields going. “I have great expectations. This is a huge event, and I had only the most wonderful of expectations because at the very least, we are going to come away from this with our horizon broadened, with a mind open because we are here for the first time. You know, it’s a different thing to immerse yourself in a culture and discover for yourself, ‘Oh, this is the way it is and not the way we are used to having it represented.’”

Ambassador Satch consists of individual artists and independent contractors that were together since 1992. They had already performed in Criterion Theatre in London; Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia; Helen Hayes Playhouse in Nyack; City College of Manhattan and Lance Theatre in Manhattan; National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina; Dennis Playhouse in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and in three theatres in New York namely the Queens Theatre in the Park, White Plains Performing Arts Centre and Emlan Theatre in Rye, New York.

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