BY LAUREL BUSBY
Photos: IAN FLANDERS
Trouble the Water explores the life of little-known hero Robert Smalls, the first African-American U.S. congressman, who commandeered a Southern ship to lead a daring sea escape during the Civil War.
The world premiere of this play at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum was adapted by Ellen Geer, the theater’s artistic director, based on the 2019 novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff.
The play begins on the day of Smalls’ birth and shares the stories of both his family and the family who “owned” them during a dark time in American history epitomized by a nasty neighboring family who revel in the chance to abuse the people they “own.”
The drama delves with passion and intensity into both the horrors of slavery and also the challenges of being female in this sexist age.
Directed by Gerald C. Rivers, who also stars as the mature Smalls, the play explodes with activity and action, fully utilizing the open-air stage among the trees at the Theatricum Botanicum, to illustrate both slavery’s atrocities and Smalls’ determination to improve the lives of both himself and those he loves.
Periodic gospel music provides a plaintive addition to the action at times, and the actors inhabit their roles with verve and purpose.
Terrence Wayne, Jr., plays the young Smalls, nicknamed “Trouble,” because he came into the world on a day infected with trouble. Required to move from childhood to adulthood in the role, Wayne captures the spirit of a young person trapped in a challenging world where he has mixed feelings about the people around him, particularly his “owners,” Jane McKee (Robyn Cohen) and Henry McKee (Alistair McKenzie), who might also be his father.
In comparison to the nasty nearby family, the McKees are gentle folks, but Smalls feels both love and anger toward them. It’s hard not to feel both, because of the inherently abusive power dynamic in their relationship.
Violence is always in the background and can explode unexpectedly, even from Smalls’ mother, Lydia (Earnestine Phillips). But compassion also comes from unexpected quarters too, particularly swinging back and forth between Smalls and Lydia to the McKees and their children, Eliza Jane (Venice Mountain-Zona) and Hank/Will (Elliott Grey Wilson).
Smalls’ uncle George, (Rodrick Jean-Charles) is a force of warmth and caring, while tender relationships such as the one between the adult Smalls and his eventual wife, Hannah (Tiffany Coty), provide a counterpoint to the difficult scenes stemming from the injustices of slavery, epitomized by Barnwell Rhett (Franc Ross) and his son Peter (Sage Michael Stone/Ethan Haslam) who dive into those painful moments with an ugly glee.
Yet, in essence, this story is an adventure tale, and the audience is firmly on Smalls’ side as he navigates the travails that his life has in store for him. He must fight and fight hard to find his way in this dystopian past, but find his way he does, ending up in the place he clearly deserves to be.
Trouble the Water plays weekly through October 2 and rotates with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Westside Waltz.
A prologue discussion with the cast of Trouble the Water will take place before the show at 6:30 p.m. on September 24.
“Pay What You Will” ticket pricing is available (cash only at the door) on August 29 and September 4. The theater, an outdoor stage, is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Visit: theatricum.com.