The Lost Colony continues to surprise, inspire

Published 7:02 am Wednesday, August 3, 2022

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The Lost Colony tells the story of the brave men and women who ventured across an ocean to begin life on a new continent, landing right here on Roanoke Island. The play delves into the political atmosphere in England which allowed families to travel to a new land and then later during war time withheld additional aid to the struggling colony. It balances the complicated relationships between Native Americans and the English colonists in the late 1500s. And it keeps the mystery alive of the 117 men, women and children who disappeared from their settlement on Roanoke Island and were never heard from again.

2022 marks the 85th season of The Lost Colony, making it the longest running outdoor symphonic drama. The show debuted in in 1937 and has run every summer with the exception of the years of World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

Though still based on the original screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greene, The Lost Colony has seen many changes over the decades. The 2021 version was a completely reimagined version, with fresh choreography by Jeff Whiting, less dialogue and a musical score that ran throughout the majority of the show.

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The 2022 show added back in some of the beloved and beautiful dialogue, a stronger Old Tom character and some reorganization of elements from last year, such as the placement of the Native American dances in the show. The dances now take place as a pre-show on Friday and Saturday nights.

The major addition to this season of The Lost Colony is the upgraded lighting, sound and projection system, which add a stunning visual and experiential depth to the show. One of the most dramatic scenes of the production is the ocean crossing at the end of Act One.

The sounds and sights converge to draw the viewer into the ocean crossing, experiencing both the thrill and terror of the voyage and somehow managing to capture the sheer relief and joy at reaching land.

Projections were also incorporated to draw attention to the vast differences between life in the pristine English Court compared to the harsh and unfamiliar life in the New World. The effect allowed the viewer to more quickly become absorbed in the current scene and feel the atmosphere change in deeper and more meaningful ways.

The costumes were a visual delight in each scene, spectacularly designed by Hannah Davis. Davis’s attention to detail spans from the exquisite formality of Elizabethan court to the historic Native American dance regalia. The costumes were colorful and engaging while still realistic for each time period. Among the most notable costumes were the long ornate coats worn by Manteo and Wanchese while visiting Queen Elizabeth.

Critics of the changes to The Lost Colony have complained that the show has been “Disney-fied.” Perhaps it has. People who have grown up attending the show will notice changes. But with a theater capacity of 1600, The Lost Colony is seeking to attract thousands of visitors each week.

“We’re trying to find a way to tell the same story to a modern audience,” said Chuck Still, executive director, who is new to The Lost Colony this season. “Our major audience is people who are on vacation with kids. [The changes] may reduce the serious intent, but it makes sense if you’re thinking of who your audience is,” he reasoned.

There are many character highlights to this year’s production. Benedetto Robinson played the part of Spaniard captain Simon Fernando very well and the sword fight between Fernando and John Borden (performed by Will Dusek) was engaging and well-choreographed.

Imani Joseph performed beautifully as the Troubadour Dancer and the refreshed choreography and costume seemed to suit the situation better than last year. Female soloists Jahlaynia Winters, Audrey Beyersdorfer and Ruthie Sangster shined in their performances.

The special effects – including sound, lighting and projections – captured the metaphorical Native American puppet scenes in a unique and thought-provoking way. The intent was clearly communicated without being too intense for a young audience.

The Old Tom character, played by Aaron Coleman, returned a depth to the show that many people missed last year. From town fool to one of the leaders of the struggling colony, Old Tom transforms throughout the show, evidenced by the famous line, “Roanoke, O Roanoke, thou hast made a man of me.”

There were a few things in the 2022 performance that have not yet reached their fullest potential. “In many ways, it’s more of a rough sketch of what we’d like to be than a finished product,” said Still, citing supply chain issues and unforeseen weather issues during the final rehearsals.

The addition of high-tech lights, sound and projections have brought a level of sophistication to The Lost Colony, but it also will require trained professionals to run and maintain that technology. Whereas the show used to depend on college students for crew positions, things are different now. “We need to figure out as an organization how to maintain the levels of sophistication we’ve put in place,” he continued.

Technology isn’t the only way that The Lost Colony is evolving. 2021 marked the first season that all of the Native American roles were played by indigenous performers. “We quit painting Caucasians red to make them Indians. That’s not who the world is anymore. That’s not who Manteo is anymore. That’s not who Roanoke Island is anymore … That’s just a reflection of modern society,” Still said.

In the last several years, The Lost Colony has partnered with the Lumbee Tribe and Cherokee Nation to ensure that the Native American scenes are historically and culturally accurate.

In the evenings, Still often drives the golf cart to shuttle older people from the theater back to the parking lot. He recalls conversations along the way. “’It’s not the old play,’ they’ll tell me. And I’ll say, ‘It’s not the old audience.’”

Still admits that he’s new here. He’s only been here three months and he doesn’t come with all the history and long-term connection that most people have to The Lost Colony: “It’s good and bad,” he said.

“The English are not the heroes they were in the old play, but they’re still pretty damn heroic,” he added.

What does this modern audience think of the show?

“We’re loving it,” said sisters Jennifer Marten and Shirean Dryden, visiting from New Jersey and Georgia.

“We saw it when we were kids and now we’re taking our own kids. The renovation to make it wheelchair accessible is great,” said Marten, whose son uses a wheelchair.  “It was really wonderful.”

Fourteen-year-old Reid Dryden said it was “awesome” and especially enjoyed the sets and costumes.

Cherie O’Brien from Kill Devil Hills also remembers attending the play with her parents as a child, then years later with her husband Pat, and now in 2022 with their adult daughters. “It reminds me a little bit of Sight and Sound [in Lancaster, Pennsyvlania],” she said.

Her daughter Loletta O’Brien said simply, “I loved it.”

The show runs through August 20. For tickets, visit