Back for its 84th year, The Lost Colony is on stage again. It feels great to know that the oldest continuously running outdoor drama in North America is still alive and well.
There are some changes this year. Some were long overdue and over time will improve what was already a very fine play. Others may take some getting used to.
Anyone who is returning to Waterside Theater after seeing the play in past years will immediately know this is different. Gone is the dance that traditionally opened the show with an Indian climbing a pole and looking to the horizon as village dancers whirl around the stage.
What replaces it is colorful, energetic, and authentic.
One of the most important changes that was made to the production in 2021 was to reach out to the Lumbee Indian Tribe, located primarily in Robeson County a little bit inland and to the south of Dare County. What tribal leadership was able to bring to the production was an authenticity that included the Native American dances.
They also helped The Lost Colony hire Native Americans to play the part of the Indians.
The Historian/narrator has been replaced by a woman who is a Native American Storyteller. It’s a very nice touch and creates a different way of recounting the story of the lost colony.
The jury is still a little bit out on some of the alterations.
The opening sequence gives way to a second dance that is a traditional American Indian hoop dance. It does make the introduction rather long, and it’s unclear how the hoop dance relates to the story.
Although the use of Native American actors and authentic dance is one of the most significant differences between the 2021 production and years past, it is not the only alteration.
A drumline announces the first appearance of Queen Elizabeth. It is a wonderful touch. The cadence is snappy and spiced up a bit with some syncopation. It does go on for some time, though…almost like a halftime show at a football game. The musicianship of the drumming is outstanding; there is at one point a drum solo that is really well done. But like the hoop dance at the beginning of the play, some in the audience will find it entertaining, but whether it moves the story along is another question.
There is also a heavy reliance on American Indian dance and symbolism to tell the story. It does shift some of the focus to how the tribes viewed the English and their attempt to establish a colony.
Included in the dance and symbolic sequence is the death of King Wigina, the ruler of many of the local tribes. Historically it is known that Ralph Lane, the military leader of the preliminary expedition to Roanoke Island attacked Wigina’s village and killed him in a violent confrontation. Placing his death in the dance sequence, it doesn’t seem as violent as it was in the original, and because of that, the reasons for the fear and distrust of the English in the play are not as clear.
One aspect of The Lost Colony that has not changed is the acting which continues to be excellent, and that includes a powerful scene where the benefit of having Native American actors play the roles of Native Americans becomes apparent.
Manteo and Wanchese were sent by Wigina to England to learn more about the country. When they return, they have come to very different conclusions.
Manteo argues that there are very real benefits to working with the English. Wanchese takes the position that the English cannot be trusted and are going to take the lands of the Algonquin peoples. He also mentions that they don’t bathe.
Both are right, of course, in their positions and the argument was in the original script. However, there was something about the actors portraying Wanchese and Manteo argued that added a spark of realism to the roles.
Old Tom is still in the play and when he’s in England he is still a drunken fool. And in the New World, he finds he is valuable and important, making a speech to that effect, although it is somewhat shortened from the original in the revised script.
What is different in this version, and it is a small but important difference, Agona speaks, adding validity and believability to the relationship. In the original, Agona is always there by Old Tom’s side. It’s funny and cute, but it’s never clear why she chose him.
There have certainly been changes in The Lost Colony from every past version. Do all of those changes work? The jury is still out on that. But one thing that has not changed is the magic of watching history unfold on stage beneath the stars on a summer night.