By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on May 29, 2021
After a forced year off due to COVID, the 84th season of The Lost Colony premiered last night, Friday May 28, at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island.
The actors’ performances were, as they have always been, very good. The set design, lighting and production values were excellent. Outer Banks resident Stuart Parks as John White was particularly good, as was Kayla Jean Oxendine as the Storyteller. The Storyteller replaces the Historian/Narrator that was most recently played by Don Bridges, who passed away in December of 2020.
The production team, working with the Lumbee Tribe, brought Native American actors to the stage, a decision that corrected years of using dyes to create the American Indian roles. Particularly in the scene where Manteo (Nakya Leviner), the friend of the English, is arguing with Wanchese ((Zakia Blackburn), who is suspicious of the English, about the meaning of the colony on Roanoke Island, the different interpretations of the same facts came to life.
It was an evening filled with song, dance and pageantry — but that was also an issue with the 2021 version of Paul Green’s historic drama about England’s first attempt to colonize the New World. Lost in the use of song, dance, drumming and symbolic language was a good deal of the narrative of the play Green wrote in 1937.
Sensibilities have changed in the 84 years since the play was first performed, and audience expectations have changed as well. And, as a theatrical production, The Lost Colony was in need of updating, but last night’s performance went beyond updating to recreating. Much of the original language and story seemed buried beneath long dance sequences that did not appear to advance the story. It may also be that the 2021 version is so different from what has been seen in the past that return visit is needed.
In addition to bringing Native American actors to the stage, the Lumbee Tribe helped to create authentic Native American dances. Gone was the 1930’s-era opening dance sequence with its imagining of an American Indian dance of the day. What replaced it was wonderful — colorful and active.
It was fascinating to witness through the first sequence, but as the dance went on and new dancers took the stage exploring new themes in dance, it began to feel like a dance recital. The same could be said for the drum line that announced Queen Elizabeth I. At first, it was marvelous and innovative, but as it went on and on, its significance to the plot was lost.
Much of the dance sequences were heavily symbolic, as was the narration from the Storyteller. But that sometimes made the significance of events hard to follow. That was particularly the case in the death of Wigina (Frank Lowery).
In Green’s original script, Ralph Lane attacks and kills Wigina in a sequence that involves gunfire and violence. It is historically probably what happened. Lane’s actions alienated the surrounding tribes and are generally viewed as significantly contributing to the failure of the colony.
In the reimagined Lost Colony, Wigina’s death is depicted symbolically in a dance sequence, and the violence of the confrontation is downplayed, making it unclear why Wanchese, in particular, was rallying his people against the English.
Ralph Lane himself, in this version of the play, is presented as a cousin to the Queen and a bit of a simpering fool. Historically he was not related to Queen Elizabeth and even before coming the New World, he had a history of military violence in Ireland.
Some of what has been introduced this year in a reimagined use of dance worked very well. The crossing of the Atlantic was particularly powerful. Yet overall, there was the appearance of a substitution of pageantry for dialogue that is unfortunate because Green, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, understood language, dialogue and narrative.
In the original version of the play, one of the most powerful moments of the evening occurs when Old Tom is standing guard on the parapet of the stockade. A drunkard and laughingstock to all who knew him in England, he finds himself in awe of the person he has become. The monologue is a powerful statement to the potential that lives within all of us, and it encapsulates much of what the American experience is supposed to represent.
In last night’s version, Old Tom — played very well by Finn Stewart— is not standing guard and protecting 100 colonists. Rather, the speech is truncated, delivered as he fetches water with Agona. In an improvement, though, that should be noted in the new version, Agona does speak, making her relationship with Old Tom a little more believable.
It may be that after seeing The Lost Colony a number of times, there are certain expectations that have been internalized, and perhaps the reimagined play steps beyond the comfort zone that comes with that. But there is an expectation that elements of the original play should be preserved to a greater degree.
At the same time, there is also something about this year’s production that is compelling. Maybe it’s the quality of the performances; maybe it’s the dance sequences, which at their best are outstanding. Maybe it’s that this is a new way to think about the play that calls out to be seen again.
Or perhaps, it’s wonderful to see a live performance once again.