The oldest mystery

Entertainment Travel

July 1, 2021

The Lost Colony gets a new look, a new life and a new vision.

by Gary Pearce   •   photographs by Morgan Gustafson

The drive from the Outer Banks takes you 30 minutes to an hour — and takes you back 434 years. You leave behind the beaches, the bars, the shops, the restaurants, the crowds and the traffic. Cross over the causeway to Roanoke Island, pass through the town of Manteo and turn off the main road into the dark woods along the sound. Park and walk through the trees. It’s evening, nearly sunset. In the quiet, you hear only the wind and the water.

You’re standing where, in 1587, a band of English colonists abandoned a tenuous settlement they’d established less than a year before. They set off in search of a new home — and they disappeared.

You sit in an open-air theater where, on summer nights since 1937, the colonists’ story — and the mystery of their fate — has been brought to life by The Lost Colony, America’s oldest outdoor symphonic drama.

Last summer, Covid canceled the production for the first time since World War II. This summer, The Lost Colony is back — with new energy, new casting, new production techniques, a new script and musical score, and a new look at what might have happened when two cultures, English and Native American, came into contact and conflict.

This will be the 84th summer the drama is performed in Waterside Theatre, at the northern edge of Roanoke Island in Dare County. The theater is part of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which preserves the location of Roanoke Colony. The colony was the first English settlement in the New World and the birthplace of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America.

The play itself is a historic dramatization. It began as a federally funded Depression-era project. The theater was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Lost Colony was intended to be a one-year production. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the show with a good deal of media fanfare on August 18, 1937 — the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth and a little more than a month after the July 4th premiere. After FDR’s visit, the crowds came. The show was so popular, organizers decided to stage it every summer. 

Last season’s cancellation was a financial blow to the Roanoke Island Historical Association, which produces the drama. But Kevin Bradley, the association’s board chair, says the year off turned out to be a blessing. “We had the time to reimagine the production, recharge our batteries and refresh how we tell this story.”

A new director/choreographer was recruited: Jeff Whiting, whose Broadway credits include on Bullets Over Broadway, Big Fish, The Scottsboro Boys, Hair and Wicked 5th Anniversary.

Whiting has reduced the lengthy original script, written by North Carolina playwright Paul Green, allowing the scenes and story to move faster and providing more time for theatrical storytelling. Additional theatrical devices will support the storytelling, including large-scale puppets, a military-style drum corps and a new symphonic score. 

But Paul Green’s imprint remains. Green was a Harnett County farm boy who became a professor at the UNC Chapel Hill and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Green was the father of “symphonic drama.” He saw it as the people’s theater, a way of telling Americans about their past. 

In the past, the production didn’t always use Indigenous actors to portray the Native American roles. Seeking authenticity, the association reached out to Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. With the tribe’s help, Native Americans were recruited as actors and dancers. Auditions were held in Robeson County, in the Lumbee tribal territory. 

“With North Carolina’s American Indian population numbering more than 100,000, it enriches the production to see and hear their voices on stage,” Godwin says. 

New choreography, regalia, language accuracy and orchestration will help bring “more of an authentic and cultural American Indian perspective into the play,” says Kaya Littleturtle, cultural enrichment coordinator for the Lumbee Tribe.

But the real test is whether the new production will bring back audiences, says John Ancona, general manager. “We want to give our audience an exceptional evening’s experience in an outdoor setting — an experience you can’t get many places. We want to inspire interest in a part of history that remains a mystery today.”

Ancona hopes that visitors will leave the theater intrigued by the story. Perhaps they’ll dip into the ongoing, unending research and archeological exploration that still seeks clues about The Lost Colony. 

Where did they go? What happened to them? Did they drown at sea? Were they killed by natives, or by Spanish raiders? Or did they quietly go live with a friendly tribe? We don’t know, but we do know the colonists dreamed of freedom. They dared a dangerous ocean voyage. They sought a new life in a new land.

Take the drive back to their world. Walk where they walked. See and feel what they saw and felt. Hear their story. Listen to the wind, the water and the trees. Feel the mystery of The Lost Colony.  SP

The Lost Colony’s 2021 season launched May 28 and continues through August 21. For tickets and more information, visit 

Gary Pearce is a member of the board of directors of the Roanoke Island Historical Association.

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