Mullen's fascination with Satchmo dates back to his high school days in Buffalo, New York. There he was reading Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X when he came across the statement that the greatest flowering of Afro-American culture, the Harlem Renaissance, didn't start until a black kid got off the train with combat boots and a horn.
"That was kind of like wow to me," Mullen recalls. "Also during that time, I heard that NASA had sent a satellite up into space in case some extra-terrestrial beings might find it. And in there, they decided to put some recordings of Louis, and that struck me also."
Good Morning, Vietnam, the madcap movie starring Robin Williams, cinched it. Mullen heard Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," a song that perfectly encapsulates what so many felt when they saw and heard Satchmo perform.
"That just like did it for me," Mullen attests. "So I said, "I've got to find out some more about who Louis Armstrong was.'"
Mullen hunted up a picture book by renowned jazz critic Gary Giddins and became further intrigued as he viewed the photos with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. While teaching biography at the University of Buffalo, Mullen delved deeper. Armstrong's life, Mullen finally decided, was every bit as exciting as his music.
"Louis was a prolific writer," Mullen reveals. "Whenever he would come into his dressing room, he would sit there at a typewriter and write for hours. I was able to find some of his documents, and they intrigued me."
Getting ready to write his show, Mullen researched his subject for nearly two years. Along with writings by Armstrong, Mullen gleaned from the anecdotes reported by friends and fans who spent time with Satch. He even had a chance to sit down with Dick Gregory during his quest and came away with a few tales. Mostly Mullen slogged through books, recordings, and photos to form his impressions.
Anecdotes that struck him drew wows, check marks, and were put on 5x8 index cards. When he lined them all up - stories about Armstrong's childhood, adolescence, and rise to fame - Mullen felt that he had a full-bodied, stage-worthy story.
Then he cobbled his show together. "It took me like maybe two or three months," says Mullen. "The Louis that I portray, he's in maybe his late 60s. I don't think the whole essence of him could be seen in his earlier days."
Mullen came to the Neighborhood Theatre in search of a venue - and a director. Promoter Paul McBroom called on longtime Charlotte theater warrior George Gray to look the piece over. That was less than four weeks ago.
Sufficiently impressed, Gray is directing the show and producing it under his Stage One umbrella. Gray has been equally impressed by Mullen's erudition.
"He's done his research," Gray observes. "You get him started improvising on Louis Armstrong, he's got story after story after story and just launches into it."
A Tuff Shuffle takes place in Satchmo's dressing room after a concert, where he typically held court before a crowd of friends and fans of all types and descriptions. It's 90 minutes non-stop with no intermission from the most renowned soloist in the history of jazz. In the wake of Ken Burns' famed PBS documentary, Mullen can probably expect a bigger audience now than when he completed his script three years ago.
Mullen has handled formidable roles before. His theatrical debut was in the title role of Purlie Victorius and he's appeared in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. He also wrote plays before moving into his current niche. Mullens' first one-man show was The President's General: Marcus Garvey, performed in Chicago and New York; he has resolutely taken the one-man route ever since.
Gray thinks audiences will savor the affirmative curve of the action.
"Nearly seventy, he is drained from his performance and a recent heart attack," the director explains. "His lips are in shreds. But as his story comes to life, and strains of music touch the air, he seems to gather strength, and by the end, he's ready to start all over."
For Tuff Shuffle tickets, call (704) 358-9298 or log in at www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.