Theatricum Botanicum Takes on Sprawling Trouble the Water

Cast. Photo by Ian Flanders.

With Trouble the Water, Artistic Director and force behind the Theatricum, Ellen Geer, brings us an important story of a civil war hero, Robert Smalls. Born into slavery, he survived to become a 5-time congressman during the reconstruction era.  Adapted from the novel of the same name by Rebecca Dwight Bruff, Geer’s version is as sprawling as the sweep of this man’s life. Why have you never heard of him, you might ask?  His story muddies the neat narratives about the Civil War that make up a few pages or a chapter (at best) in history books that are still under attack in a number of states.

Geer has crafted vignettes that depict significant periods in Small’s life, while director Gerald C. Rivers utilizes every inch of the Theatricum’s sprawling stage, to imitate it seems, the distancing of time and space that makes up Bruff’s novel. Choosing different areas for different locations makes for some head-craning, leaving the center stage for a sort of never-never land in between spaces. The connecting tissue is provided by narration (performed by the director), beginning with Small’s childhood that nevertheless has to maneuver some tricky changes from older to younger Smalls toward the end of the tale.  

The young Trouble (Terrence Wayne, Jr.), as was he called then, grows up in the household of the McKee family (headed by Alistair McKenzie), where his mother, Lydia (Earnestine Phillips) is enslaved.  One tantalizing mystery concerns Trouble’s real father.  Although we are led to believe he may be the progeny of Mr. McKee himself (as was common in those times), his true lineage is finally revealed by the end of the narrative. 

The intertwining relationships of Southern life carry Trouble through adolescence and finally on the doorstep of civil war, where a confluence of events enables him to commandeer a Confederate frigate and lead his family (and a cache of Confederate munitions) into the hands of the Union.

Rivers has assembled a stellar cast, too numerous to detail here, to play more than twenty roles in order to bring the story to life. He has punctuated the action with spirituals by the smooth-as-silk Street Corner Renaissance Choir.  Although often unsung, the Theatricum always provides the most expertise is every area, from costuming (by Yuanyuan Liang), to sound (Marshall McDaniel) and lighting (Hayden Kirschbaum), and props handled by Danté Carr. Settle in (it’s a long show that, after all, includes the Civil War), and prepare to celebrate the notion that one person CAN make a difference!  It’s a message we all need right now.

Trouble the Water plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as The West Side Waltz at Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290.  Trouble the Water is based on the novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff, who will be in residence for the September 24th performance. All tickets and performance schedule at