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<em>Trouble the Water</em>
Gerald Rivers and Earnestine Phillips star in Trouble the Water production at the Theatricum Botanicum. Photo by Ian Flanders
ArtBeat, Feature

Trouble the Water 

Trouble the Water is the story of Civil War hero Robert Smalls, who was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, carried his family and others to freedom by commandeering a Confederate warship into Union waters, and eventually went on to be elected to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Based on the book by the same name, the theatrical version of this compelling story premiered at the Theatricum Botanicum this month. 

Gerald Rivers directs the play, adapted by Ellen Geer from the book by first time novelist Rebecca Dwight Bruff. The story was brought to Geer’s attention by Rivers, a longtime Theatricum actor, who narrates the audiobook.

“Ellen read the book and fell in love with it,” Rivers said. 

Geer began the adaptation more than two years ago. Then Covid hit. The project was postponed but remained under development. Theatricum hired a black dramaturg and cultural competency coach to consult.

There were several staged readings. Rivers asked his manager, Stewart K Robinson, for suggestions on the adaptation and he offered to help personally. Robinson had previously helped with the production of Hamilton in New York and wanted to see the production of Trouble the Water have the best chance to succeed. 

“Hopefully it will become part of the canon,” Rivers said, adding that there are already a couple of studios interested in the story of Robert Smalls.

Rivers is a Los Angeles native, but his mother originally came from South Carolina and grew up in the Gullah culture, the same African American ethnic group that Smalls belonged to. Rivers learned elements of Gullah language and culture growing up, and he teaches West African drumming, another connection to the culture. He met Bruff through a mutual friend and went to perform the audiobook version of Trouble the Water.

Rebecca Dwight Bruff is originally from Texas, but she moved with her late husband to South Carolina so she could delve into researching Robert Smalls. She said she felt driven to write about Smalls, whose legacy is not widely known. Bruff consulted with Michael Boulware Moore, the great, great grandson of Robert Smalls to ensure her historical novel honored the character and legacy of his ancestor. Moore read the final draft of the novel and was supportive of Bruff’s efforts.  

Bruff, a white woman telling the story of a formerly enslaved historical figure, says she is fully aware of the issues of appropriation and representation, and has focused intently on making certain Smalls’ contributions to society and history be known. 

Bruff isn’t surprised that her book is being adapted as a play and that there is interest from Hollywood. “It’s definitely a visual kind of story,” she said. “So while I wasn’t really imagining dramatization I certainly ‘saw’ it in my mind, and even before I began writing.” 

Bruff shared some insights into her writing process. 

“I learned a lot by reading good historical fiction authors, including Sue Monk Kidd’s (Invention of Wings), Edward P Jones (The Known World), Paula McClain’s (Circling the Sun, Love and Ruin), Toni Morison (Beloved). They all helped me learn how to stay true to the actual historical record and honor that while also imagining and creating all those things that aren’t always in the historical record – things like motivations and interior dialogs, relationships, emotions… 

“In this story, there were so many unanswered questions in the historical record – who was Smalls’ father? Why was his last name even Smalls? How did he meet his wife? How did he feel when the McKees were both protective of him and his mother and also their enslavers? Where did his courage and fortitude come from? Great stories – on page or stage or film – touch us and make us feel and think…”

The production features live music by Street Corner Renaissance, an a cappella group of older black men, founded by Maurice Kitchen, some recorded West African drumming (the drums are large and too cumbersome to have on stage during the fast moving play). Additionally, Marshall McDaniel has created film score style recorded pieces for several scenes.  

When asked if there’s anything else he’d like future audiences to know about this play (opening night was postponed for two weeks due to Covid exposure), Rivers offered: “It’s an incredible cast that has some members who have been with the company for many years and some people making their debut on the stage. There are 35 people—it’s a big cast.

There are Union actors who are very experienced but have never worked at the Theatricum before. The cast has been so committed to helping me tell this story…It’s elegant.” Trouble the Water dramatizes the life of Robert Smalls, a man born into slavery, self emancipated, hero of the Civil War and member of the United States House of Representatives. The play premiered July 23 and runs in repertory through September 24. Tickets available at theatricum.com.

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