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Theater Review: Trouble the Water

Actor and director Gerald C. Rivers in Trouble the Water. Photo by Ian Flanders.


What if history books accurately reflected the past, giving equal weight to stories that reinforce who we want to be and those that force us to confront who we really are? That honestly represented individuals of accomplishment, regardless of their race, gender, or other attributes? By leaving out key parts of the past, history books shape perceptions and hide the whole truth.

The New York Times launched a series of obituaries in 2018 called “Overlooked” that seeks to fill in the extensive gaps in their white men-dominated record. Recent academic, media and other efforts have shined a light on hidden history both uncomfortable and uplifting.

Some stories are so significant that they leave you asking, “How did I not know about this before?” One example is the amazing true story of slave Robert “Trouble” Smalls. It’s told in Trouble the Water, a 2019 novel written by Rebecca Dwight Bruff and now beautifully adapted for the stage by Theatricum Botanicum’s Ellen Geer. The monumental play, with a cast of two dozen, is making its world premiere at that Topanga Canyon oasis.

Robert “Trouble” Smalls (Terrence Wayne, Jr. as the young man and Gerald C. Rivers as the elder statesman who narrates the story) lived from 1839-1915. Born a slave, he became a Civil War hero and later a member of Congress from the Fifth District of South Carolina. How did I not know about this before? It was right there in Wikipedia!


Alistair McKenzie and Terrence Wayne, Jr. in Trouble the Water. Photo by Ian Flanders.


Trouble’s owners are Jane (Robyn Cohen) and Henry (Alistair McKenzie) McKee. Their relative open-mindedness and kindness are juxtaposed against the cruelty of another slave-owning family. That family’s son Peter (Sage Michael Stone as the child, Ethan Haslam as the man) is drawn to McKee daughter Eliza Jane (Venice Mountain-Zona). Peter finds Eliza Jane’s friendship with Trouble abhorrent.


Earnestine Phillips and Robyn Cohen in Trouble the Water. Photo by Ian Flanders


The play does not flinch at portraying the most horrifying aspects of slaves’ lives, while also noting that women didn’t have it easy either. Yet it doesn’t feel like a screed. The characters are carefully drawn and the story, after all, is true.

Gerald C. Rivers deserves special note: His powerful presence onstage is matched only by his additional role as director. This is an epic that cannot be contained even on Theatricum’s large, two-level stage. Director Rivers creates a sweeping panorama, using the entire surrounding hillside and open canyon.

There’s a lot going on, as characters age and change. The set must represent a plantation house and fields, a city, ship and more. Yet it never feels overwhelming or confusing. The story is propelled forward by the remarkable nature of Smalls’ well-told life story and the talent of the large cast, director and creative team. The costumes, overseen by Beth Eslick and designed by Yuanyuan Liang, perfectly capture the time and place. Spirituals add depth and power to the action.


Trouble the Water runs through October 2 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Running time is about 2 hours 30 minutes, including an intermission. For showtimes and tickets ($26-60), click here. On Saturday, Sept. 24 there will be a pre-show discussion with Rebecca Dwight Bruff, author of the novel Trouble the Water, from 6:30 p.m.–7 p.m.


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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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