Trouble the Water is a play about the life of Robert Smalls, a man who escaped slavery and who would become an elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives as the Republican Senator from South Carolina. He was the founder of the Republican Party of South Carolina and was instrumental in convincing then President Abraham Lincoln to allow Black men to fight on behalf of the Union.
“Once you learn to read you will be forever free”
The play is set in Beaufort, South Carolina, at the home of Henry and Jane McKee, who are played by Alistair McKenzie and Robyn Cohen. “Trouble” played by Terrence Wayne, Jr. plays the younger Robert Smalls, and his mother Lydia, played by Earnestine Phillips, are the property of the McKee’s who play a role in rearing the two McKee children..
The play is narrated by Gerald C. Rivers who stars in the role of the older Robert Smalls looking back on his life with his casting bearing a great resemblance to Smalls.
The story follows Trouble as he navigates the “good life” of living with the McKee’s who would routinely step in to “save” him from the trouble he regularly found himself in, hence the nickname “Trouble”. Simultaneously, there was growing discussion of the North ending slavery if they weren’t so dependent on the commerce and financial security derived from slave labor.
Lydia would encourage the McKee’s to send Trouble to work for another owner to learn “hard labor” as rumors persisted that slaves were encountering someone named “Frederick Douglas”. The famed abolitionist.
Meanwhile, Jane is struggling and writing to her journal of the desire to be more “heard” by her husband whose primary concern at the time was birthing a boy to carry on the name. She also questioned if her husband was too close to Trouble.
There was also a scene where the McKee’s daughter comes across a neighbor with the energy giving “pedophile” at the way he looked and spoke to her.
The play continues with Robert going to work on the docks and becoming a skilled worker on steamboats. As a Black man he wouldn’t be given the title of “Captain” despite him serving in the position. After connecting with other slaves and his brother, and his wife Hannah, played by Tiffany Coty they concoct a plan to commandeer a Confederate steamboat and sail their way to freedom.
Robert would have to make eight years of payments of $8 per month to “buy” his wife and her daughter, and he never missed a payment.
“I had to buy my wife but we are still the property of the McKee’s,” recalls Smalls.
To escape they had to hide under the rebel flag and fly the white flag as a sign of “giving up” when they reached the North. They were successful.
Smalls would go on to become a member of the Navy and successful politician authoring state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States. He also founded the Republican Party of South Carolina.
The play caused me to reflect on modern day times. The premise that the country was founded on a premise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which wasn’t so readily bestowed upon women and Black people.
Jane wrote in her diary “us women are no different than our slaves” meaning they too were the property of their husband’s who control their every move and didn’t allow them to participate in civic matters. Simultaneously, there was growing momentum to free the slaves.
This fueled the 15th Amendment to free Black people from slavery, the women’s suffrage movement which led to the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 giving Blacks the right to vote. The women’s rights movement of the 70’s gave women control of their bodies.
My buddy Bozakis attends these plays with me and he remarked “pay close attention to Trump talking about illegal votes” being cast in elections. Political pressure and will brought these changes into existence, will there become political will to take them away? A woman’s right to choose was the first to go.
“Once you learn to read you will be forever free”
Black people would be led to believe that Republicans don’t have our best interest at heart but Robert Smalls fought for the rights of Blacks to be educated despite him growing up during a time where it was against the law for Blacks to read.
“Trouble the Water is 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.”
Throughout the play the audience is treated to the sounds of old Negro spirituals performed 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.
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.
**Please note the play does incorporate the use of the “N” word, depicts slaves being beaten, and a take on the rebel flag**