The C above C above High C is a nuanced play that takes place in 1957 in the United States Capitol. The central character, Louis Armstrong, is an African American butler in the White House. Armstrong gets an audience with President Eisenhower, which he uses to discuss civil rights issues in Little Rock, Arkansas. The play's central act discusses Eisenhower's controversial refusal to act when white nationalist mobs prevented young black schoolchildren from attending class in newly desegregated schools.
The play's central themes are courage, racism, and the nature of hatred. Although Armstrong's character is often criticized as being an Uncle Tom, he uses his position in the White House to reason with the President. The situation in Little Rock is contrasted with World War II, and Armstrong explains to the President that although Hitler's physical body was killed, his hatred lives on on the bigoted men fighting against the desegregation of the Arkansas school district. By standing up to this new wave of bigotry, Eisenhower can take his place in history as a President who stood up to hatred.
The play gets its title from a line delivered by Armstrong, who tells the president that he can achieve the full potential of his office, hitting "the C above C above high C," if he defends the young students in Arkansas and stands up to bigotry.
In addition to bigotry and the responsibility of power, The C above C above High C also features themes of discontented marriage, infidelity, and drug addiction. Ishmael Reed uses dry wit to convey a sense of humor that contrasts with the serious themes of the play.