FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Press contact: Lucy Pollak
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World premiere of ‘Trouble the Water’ recounts extraordinary,
little-known story of African American hero Robert Smalls
TOPANGA, Calif (REVISED July 25, 2022) –– Inspired by the little-known, larger-than-life true story of Robert Smalls, the first African American hero of the Civil War, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presents the world premiere of Trouble the Water, freely adapted by Ellen Geer from the 2019 award-winning historical novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff. Longtime Theatricum company member Gerald C. Rivers (who voiced the audiobook version of Bruff’s novel) directs and leads the large cast as Smalls. Performances begin Saturday, July 23 on Theatricum’s beautiful outdoor stage in Topanga, where they continue through October 2.
Trouble the Water tells the remarkable story of Smalls, born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, who carried his family and others to freedom by commandeering a Confederate warship into Union waters. Upon delivering the ship—including an arsenal of rebel weaponry—to the Union army, Smalls was declared a hero, awarded $1500, and introduced to Abraham Lincoln, influencing the President to allow Black men to fight for the Union. Smalls went on to be elected to five-terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He helped found the Republican Party of South Carolina and authored state legislation creating the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.
“It’s an extraordinary story that has been buried in the annals of history because it was embarrassing to the Confederacy,” says Rivers. “Smalls not only exhibited exceptional determination and courage, but he proved to be a man of great compassion. When his owner, Henry McKee, arranged for him to work in a restaurant in Charleston, Robert taught himself to read, perhaps using the menu. He planned and executed a daring escape, saving not only himself, but his fellow slaves on the ship and their families. During Reconstruction, he returned to Beaufort where he purchased, for back taxes, the house in which he and his mother were enslaved. Legend has it that when Jane McKee, the woman who enslaved them, showed up on his doorstep showing signs of dementia, he took her in and allowed her to live in that house until her death.”
“As Reconstruction was dismantled and White supremacy regained its stronghold on the South, White political leaders worked hard to diminish Smalls’ accomplishments and influence,” says Bruff. “In the end, he died on the front porch of the house he was born behind.”
Rivers narrates the story for us in the role of the older Robert Smalls looking back on his life, while Terrence Wayne, Jr. plays his younger self, nicknamed “Trouble.” Earnestine Phillips stars as Robert’s mother, Lydia, enslaved in the house of Henry and Jane McKee, who are played by Alistair McKenzie and Robyn Cohen. Rodrick Jean-Charles portrays Trouble’s Uncle George, brother to Reuben (Clarence Powell), who was hanged the night Trouble was born. Tiffany Coty stars as Robert’s girlfriend and first wife, Hannah, while Michelle Merring plays Smalls’ second wife in his later years. Franc Ross is neighboring slave owner and Confederate firebrand Robert Barnwell Rhett, and Justin Blanchard plays Reverend French. Also in the cast are Matthew Clair, Joseph Darby, Emerson Haller, Ethan Haslam, Fallon Heaslip, Frank Krueger, Eden Lederer, Joelle Lewis, Tariq Mieres, Danezion Mills, Michaela Molden, Kenneth Montley, Venice Mountain-Zona, Susan Stangl, Sage Michael Stone, Monique Thompson and Elliott Grey Wilson.
The action of the play is punctuated by Negro spirituals, sung by a cappella group Street Corner Renaissance (NBC’s The Sing Off, Season 4; PBS special DooWop Generation), featuring members Charles (Sonny) Banks, Robert Henley III, Maurice Kitchen, Torrence Brannon Reese and Anthony Snead. The title Trouble the Water comes from the African American spiritual, Wade in the Water.
Gerald C. Rivers is a director, classically trained Shakespearean actor, voiceover artist, inspirational speaker and master West African drummer and teacher. After touring with Atlanta’s Academy Theatre (Georgia’s longest running professional theater) for five years, Rivers went on to become the company’s associate artistic director. At Theatricum, he has appeared in dozens of productions, including his own one-man show about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin & Music. Rivers is known for his voiceover work in cartoons, animated feature films, internet series, internationally popular video games, and radio and television commercials and campaigns. Gerald is also the founder and executive director of Message Media Group, a multimedia edutainment company providing presentations and workshops to all age groups.
The creative team for Trouble the Water includes lighting designer Hayden Kirschbaum; sound designer Marshall McDaniel; costume designer Yuan Yuan Liang; prop master Dante Carr; dramaturg Stuart K. Robinson; and cultural competency coordinator Kikanza Nuri-Robins. Kim Cameron is the production stage manager. Trouble the Water is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Trouble the Water will run in repertory every weekend with The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The West Side Waltz, each of which opens earlier in the season. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s 2022 summer repertory season is sponsored by the S. Mark Taper Foundation.
Unlike most theaters in the L.A. area that stage continuous runs of a single play, Theatricum, using a company of actors, performs each of the plays in repertory, making it possible to see all four plays in a single summer weekend.
Theatricum Botanicum has been named “One of the 50 Coolest Places in Los Angeles” by Buzz magazine, “One of Southern California’s most beguiling theater experiences” by Sunset magazine, and “Best Theater in the Woods” by the LA Weekly. “The enchantment of a midsummer night at Theatricum Botanicum [makes it] crystal clear why audiences have been driving up into the hills since Theatricum’s maiden season way back in 1973. Summer Shakespeare doesn’t get any better than this,” writes StageSceneLA. Says Los Angeles magazine, “The amphitheater feels like a Lilliputian Hollywood Bowl, with pre-show picnics and puffy seat cushions, yet we were close enough to see the stitching on the performers costumes. Grab a blanket and a bottle and head for the hills.” In 2017, Theatricum was named “one of the best outdoor theaters around the world” by the Daily Beast.
Theatricum’s beginnings can be traced to the early 1950s when Will Geer, a victim of the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist (before he became known as the beloved Grandpa on The Waltons), opened a theater for blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property in Topanga. Friends such as Ford Rainey, Della Reese, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie joined him on the dirt stage for vigorous performances and inspired grassroots activism, while the audiences sat on railroad ties. Today, two outdoor amphitheaters are situated in the natural canyon ravine, where audiences are able to relax and enjoy the wilderness during an afternoon or evening’s performance. Theatricum’s main stage amphitheater sports a new and improved sun shade for increased audience comfort, installed with support from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Ralph M. Parson’s Foundation. Theatricum is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Margaret Harford Award for “sustained excellence,” which is the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s highest honor.
The amphitheater is terraced into the hillside, so audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic before a performance. Check the Theatricum website prior to each performance for current, up-to-date Covid-19 safety protocols.
Trouble the Water opens on Saturday, July 23 at 7:30 p.m. and continues through October 2. Meet novelist Rebecca Dwight Bruff at the prologue (pre-show discussion) on Saturday, Sept. 24 from 6:30-7 p.m.
Tickets range from $10 to $42. Premium seating is available for $60. Children four and under are free. Pay What You Will ticket pricing will be available on the following dates (cash only at the door): Saturday, July 23 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley.
For a complete schedule of performances, to purchase tickets and for information including up-to-date Covid19 protocols on the day of each performance, call (310) 455-3723 or visit theatricum.com.
Details for Calendar Listings
‘Trouble the Water’
Inspired by the little-known, larger-than-life true story of Robert Smalls, the first African American hero of the Civil War, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presents the world premiere of Trouble the Water, freely adapted by Ellen Geer from the 2019 award-winning historical novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff.
• Freely Adapted by Ellen Geer from the novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff
• Directed by Gerald C. Rivers
• Starring Justin Blanchard; Robyn Cohen; Tiffany Coty; Ethan Haslam; Rodrick Jean-Charles; Alistair McKenzie; Michelle Merring; Earnestine Phillips; Clarence Powell; Gerald C. Rivers; Franc Ross; Terrence Wayne, Jr.
• Presented by Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
Performances: July 23– October 2:
• Saturday, July 23 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, July 31 at 3:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Aug. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m.
• Sunday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
• Friday, Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m.*
• Sunday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
*Meet novelist Rebecca Dwight Bruff: Prologue (pre-show discussion): Saturday, Sept. 24 from 6:30 p.m.–7 p.m.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)
• Adults: $42 (lower tier/assigned seating); $26 (upper tier/general seating); premium lower tier seating available for $60
• Seniors (65+), Students, Military Veterans, Teachers, AEA Members: $25/$15
• Children (5-15): $10
• Children 4 and under: Free
• Performances on July 16, July 23, Aug. 5, Aug. 26, Sept. 4: Pay-What-You-Will
• The outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating.
• Call the theater or check the website prior to each performance to find current, up-to-date Covid-19 safety protocols.
(310) 455-3723 or theatricum.com.
This production is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts
and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s 2022 summer repertory season
is sponsored by the S. Mark Taper Foundation.
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