Theater Review: TROUBLE THE WATER (Theatricum Botanicum)

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by Tony Frankel on September 17, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


In January 2017, President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, noting the significance of Robert Smalls to our national story. In 2019, the park was renamed Reconstruction Era National Historical Park with a visitor center located just a few blocks away from both Robert Smalls’ home and his final resting place at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.

Joseph Darby; Danezion Mills; Terrence Wayne, Jr.;
Michaela Molden; Tiffany Coty and Michelle Merring

Yet until recently, Smalls became a side-note in history. Thanks to Trouble the Water, Ellen Geer’s powerful adaptation of the 2019 same-titled historical novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff, you will learn just who this inspiring man was. Now playing outdoors at Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, you will come to know Nicholas Nickleby-style — where 26 actors play many roles — Mr. Smalls, who was born in 1839, enslaved by a local planter in South Carolina. By the time he was 23 years old, Smalls had won freedom for himself and his family, and was a famous war hero. He became a prominent leader in the community during the Reconstruction era, including service in both the state and national legislature. His story illustrates the transformative potential of Reconstruction throughout the southern United States.

The Ensemble

Packed with facts, suspense, humor, and love, the evening-long Trouble the Water at times lack the depth and authenticity of the adventures of Smalls, but one realizes that it would take a two-night play such as Nickolas Nickleby to fully encompass this fascinating tale, which is also a mystery story involving Smalls’ lineage. From plantation to wharf to boat to late-night escape attempts, we see the struggle, benevolence, violence, and spirituality on all sides, and unabashed cruelty, including a lynching, from the Confederates. Central to the story is Smalls aka “Trouble” (sweet newcomer Terrence Wayne, Jr.), his house-slave mother Lydia (a powerful Earnestine Phillips) and his wife Hannah Jones (a wrenching performance by Tiffany Coty). Director Gerald C. Rivers uses the entire woodsy hill around the stage to have the production be as epic as the story of Smalls. Mr. Rivers also portrays with magnificence the older Smalls looking back on his life, bearing an uncanny resemblance to this unsung hero.

Gerald C. Rivers

By the time Robert Smalls died in February 1915, southern Democrats had completely retaken the political landscape of the south and instituted harsh segregation policies. The rise of the Lost Cause rewrote the history of Reconstruction, and the successes of men and women like Robert Smalls disappeared from the mainstream narrative. This is an awesome show to counter that history, and the staff at the Botanicum is as altruistic as they come.

Terrence Wayne, Jr.; Earnestine Phillips; and Fallon Heaslip

photos by Ian Flanders

Fallon Heaslip, Elliott Grey Wilson; and Robyn Cohen

Trouble the Water
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Topanga
ends on October 2, 2022
for tickets, call 310-455-3723 or visit Theatricum

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