Cast In a New Light
The Lost Colony, a play about North Carolina’s first English settlers, is in its 85th year. Can it be modernized to reflect a more contemporary perspective on race, history, art, and colonization? // Illustrations by Abraham Matias
Act I: Social Awakening
In the summer of 2020, Lumbee Tribal Chair Harvey Godwin Jr. was surprised to hear the voicemail from Kevin Bradley.
Bradley is the board chairman of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, which runs the production of The Lost Colony each summer. The drama depicts the first English settlement in the New World, performed in the approximate location where 117 people went missing in the late 1500s. For the last four centuries, explorers, historians, and scholars have debated what happened to the colonists—did they starve, die at the hands of Spanish explorers or neighboring tribes, or assimilate with a Native group they called the Croatoans?
The play—written in 1937 by Paul Green, a Pulitzer Prize-winning North Carolina playwright—fantasizes about what might have happened. Now in its 85th season, the show is a major source of pride and tradition on the Outer Banks, where as many as 90,000 tourists come to see it each summer. But even as late as 2019, white people played the Native characters, with their skin spray-painted copper—a practice known as “bronzing,” or “redfacing.”
That practice drew new attention in 2020, when Adam Griffin posted a petition on change.org that read, “Stop Performing Racist, Redface Performances of ‘The Lost Colony’ in Manteo, NC.” Griffin, a Los Angeles-based casting producer, grew up in New Bern, North Carolina, and studied theater arts at East Carolina University. His petition received hundreds of signatures within a few days.
This wasn’t the first time the historical association had heard that its depiction of Indigenous people was problematic: It had received letters and internet comments saying as much for several years, Bradley said. But the petition, bolstered by the nationwide racial justice protests of 2020, was the tipping point. Bradley reached out to several tribes and Native organizations in the region looking for help; Godwin was the only one who returned his call.
“That was in the middle of the time not long after the George Floyd situation,” said Godwin, “and social awakening in America for probably the hundredth time.”
Godwin had once been an actor, and had seen the show in the mid-1980s. Back then, he marveled at its inaccurate portrayal of Native people. Now after Bradley’s call, he reached out to Lumbee cultural adviser Kaya Littleturtle.
“We have a strong tradition of going to the coast for fishing and different things,” said Littleturtle, whose Tuscarora ancestors originated in what is now eastern North Carolina. He and Godwin knew many Lumbee tribal members were vocal about the misrepresentation of Native people in The Lost Colony. “They'd see the show, and they'd be like, ‘Where's the Indians at?’ and they would be quite upset about it.” Godwin and Littleturtle wanted to address those concerns.
Bradley said that he not only wanted to cast Native people, but make the show more fully represent the Indigenous perspective. “One of the things I wanted him to know right out of the gate was that we weren't interested in making the changes and coming to him for permission, or approval. We wanted him and the Lumbee tribe to be a part of the artistic team.”
Since the pandemic canceled the whole 2020 season, they had a full year to reimagine the play.
“If you want a script to be more representative, for your play to be more representative of the realism of people, then you have to make changes,” said Godwin. “And it's still a hard change. People don't want to accept it; they want it to be like it was in the 1940s. I mean, people want to see the same play with the same script with the same direction as the 1940s. Today. And that’s just not our world anymore.”
As Americans fight over historical monuments and what lessons about race should be taught in schools, the entire company of The Lost Colony has found itself in the crossfire—as it struggled to preserve a beloved local legend and reflect a more accurate understanding of colonization.
But old traditions die hard.
Act II: More Historically Accurate
In Paul Green’s original script, the choir sings in the first hymn, “For here once walked the men of dreams / The sons of hope and pain and wonder.” The last song of the play finishes, “Hear us, O hear! / The dream still lives, / It lives, it lives, / And shall not die!”
At the end of the 2021 version, John White stands before the tree marked “CROATOAN” and declares, “May the dream of freedom never die.”
In its numerous revisions over nearly a century, the play has always appealed to an audience who believes they are the realization of this dream—a Christian nation of English descent that civilized the continent so that they could now watch a historical fantasy on a warm summer night, unafraid of what might attack them out of the darkness.
“I don't think Paul Green meant any ill intent when he first wrote the script in the 1930s,” said Godwin, “but I just don't think he had enough information.”
Bradley points out that Green wrote the play in the midst of the Great Depression. “He was trying to provide an inspirational story for Americans to coalesce around. The story depicted sort of an us-against-them mentality and that the colonists were the innocent ones ... It was sort of a cowboy, Indian, John Wayne sort of feature.”
Green even edited the play in the 1970s, with an eye toward making it more historically accurate. The American Indian Movement was in the news regularly, with the Indigenous occupations of Alcatraz in 1969 and Wounded Knee in 1973. But while Green was heralded as a progressive on civil rights throughout his career, he never focused on creating a more balanced portrayal of Native people.
Now, with Lumbee leaders assisting the play’s revision, new ideas and talent have merged in search of that balance.
The historical association hired a new director, Jeff Whiting. Whiting had been associate director of The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway in 2010. The musical received 12 Tony nominations and was written by David Thompson, whom Whiting recruited to help rewrite The Lost Colony’s script. Both Thompson and Whiting are white.
In the old version of the play—from 1937 through 2019—a character named the “Historian” narrated the show. In the early years, the Historian wore vestments of a church choir member. He later took on an academic look, and more recently dressed as a park ranger. After hearing Godwin talk about how the land predates humanity, Whiting decided to transform the Historian into an elder Native woman, now called the “Storyteller.”
In spring of 2021, Godwin and Littleturtle reached out to Indigenous performers around North Carolina for auditions in Pembroke. They selected 12 Native performers from four tribes and sent them to Manteo to be part of The Lost Colony’s first Native cast.
The town of Manteo is named after a Croatoan man who befriended English explorers when they arrived in 1584, giving them the lay of the land, trading with them, and helping them find food. His mother was chief of the Croatoans.
Manteo and Chief Wanchese of the Roanoke tribe boarded a ship to Great Britain and were held in Queen Elizabeth’s court for months. They spent their time in semi-confinement with a scientist, Thomas Harriot, who learned the Algonquian language and taught the two of them English.
Manteo and Wanchese disagreed on their experiences in England. Wanchese felt he had been a prisoner and wanted little to do with the English. Manteo, on the other hand, was fascinated by the colonizers and their culture. He made extreme efforts to help the settlers survive in the New World, compromising his relationships with his own tribe. He even returned to England in 1586—after Ralph Lane led a massacre on a Secotan village, beheaded their chief, Wingina, and displayed Wingina’s head on a pike in front of the soldiers’ fort for months.
The beheading of Chief Wingina, a scene known as “The Hunt,” is a pivotal moment in the first act of the play: It sets the stage for all the struggles the colonists were fated to endure. Whiting saw it as an opportunity to adopt a new theatrical storytelling device.
Here was the device: The set contained detachable magnetic tree limbs. Actors pulled “branches” from the trees and snapped them together to create enormous puppets, each maneuvered by two or more actors. As Lane’s men approach Wingina, the colonists transform into wolves. A bear takes the stage for Wingina. The wolves and the bear fight until the bear is defeated. An owl arrives and removes the bear puppet: Wingina lies dead at center stage.
The removal of graphic violence from the show is perhaps the most controversial decision the production has made over the last two years. Cast alumni and audiences from decades past can easily regale you with stunts from the “Big Battle” scene in the second act, when the colonists fight with Wanchese’s tribe, and “The Hunt” in the first act. For many, shocking fight scenes erupting with physical and pyrotechnical stunts were a defining feature of the show that helped immerse the audience in the struggle, passion, and desperation of the colonists. Removal of the violence, some locals argue, makes the show less historically accurate.
But Kaya Littleturtle saw it differently. He had been one of the few Native people to perform in the old version of the show in its more than 80 years. In 2011, he played Uppowoc, the medicine man.
“They had me doing that because I sang all the songs authentically,” he said. Littleturtle is now the cultural adviser for The Lost Colony, as well as to several tribes around the country. But a decade ago, those in charge of the show were not so receptive to Littleturtle’s input.
“They would just write me off,” he said. “They didn't care about getting the story right with Natives; they put way more focus into the European side of things.”
He recalled one rehearsal when the production team handed him a plastic skull rattle and told him to dance around and shake it. “That was probably my biggest ‘hell no’ that I had when I was down there,” he said. “I remember having a really big falling out with them about that.”
In the old version of the play, Littleturtle said that after Wingina was beheaded, the actors would put “his” head in a bloody bag and throw it across the stage.
“Historically with the show, there would be a lot of the ‘settlers versus savages’ kind of an attitude,” said Bailey Frankenberg, lead actor who played Eleanor Dare, the first Englishwoman to give birth in the New World, in 2021. She said this new portrayal with the puppets helped “tell violence without it being a glorification of murdering Native people on stage.”
But, she wondered, “Is that something you should see?... I think that there's a middle ground there of like, ‘What is that truth?’ and making sure that that truth isn't erased.”
Kayla Oxendine is a member of the Lumbee tribe who played the Storyteller last year. She and other Native cast members advocated to keep some violence in the play in 2021. This year, more violence and gunfights have been added back into the show.
Nakya Leviner appears as Manteo in the 2022 show. Photo by Cory Godwin, courtesy of The Lost Colony.
Kayla Oxendine as the Storyteller. Photo by Cory Godwin, courtesy of The Lost Colony.
“I think that it's a pendulum swing. You swing all the way to one side, swing all the way to the other of no violence, and then somehow you got to find the balance,” Oxendine said.
In the original script, both Manteo and Wanchese were killed, and neither character spoke much. Historians do not know what happened to either man: The second act of The Lost Colony is drawn entirely from the imagination of Paul Green and the production teams.
When Littleturtle played Uppowoc, “They held me at knifepoint like an animal,” he said.
After a pause, he added, “I mean, it probably happened kind of similar like that back in the day. But is there a more tasteful way of telling it? Probably. Should we tell it more tastefully? I don't know. That's not just for me to say.”
“They've killed us enough in Westerns. Can't we live for once?” Littleturtle said. “I don't see the non-Natives getting beheaded on stage and their head being put into a makeshift bloody bag and thrown across the stage. We just have to sit and watch the theatrical version of our massacre every night.”
Littleturtle emphasized that the choice to display violence or not is not the only measure of a show’s historical accuracy. “People would like to make it that clean-cut, but it's not.”
Act III: Bad Spirits
On the last night of technical rehearsal before the 2021 season, Littleturtle and a Lumbee elder led the company in a blessing ceremony.
“I think the cast and the crew and some of the board members came in and learned, walked in our moccasins for a little bit,” said Godwin, who also attended. They burned sage “to put blessings—smudge the stage, the theater, the people involved—for a safe and successful summer.”
A cleansing—clearing the air of bad spirits.
“Nothing goes through without problems or having to deal with things,” said Godwin, “but I think the blessing ceremony gave it a good start ... because of the prayers that were offered up from the smoke.”
The 12 Native actors were there to represent their culture, and there was no more redface. Whiting and Thompson removed all references to “savages” from the script, deleted the broken English that Wingina, Wanchese, and Manteo used to speak, giving each more lines to express their perspectives, and also replaced Paul Green’s Western-flick “Indian” gibberish with actual Algonquian words.
Still, there were cultural misunderstandings that didn’t sit right with some of the Native cast.
Halona Lewis, a member of the Lumbee tribe, was part of the Native ensemble in 2021. Then 18, she had started practicing and performing various styles of powwow dancing while awaiting her first year at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“What I was told was that there's going to be a guy or people from Broadway there,” said Lewis. “We’ll be dancing in a show. The show's every night, but you'll have Sundays off, you probably won't have to do that much.” Pay would be decent and housing would be included. “For me, it was an opportunity to get away from my home, learn more about the style of dancing that I was going to go do. Cool experience to just go live at the beach.”
At a social gathering that first week, Lewis learned more about the show’s history, and that they were there to change it. “My mouth dropped, I said, ‘White people played us?’”
Most of the Indigenous cast were not trained actors. It took a few days of rehearsal before Lewis realized she was acting in a two-hour symphonic drama.
Pay was also not what Lewis expected. She says she was promised $222 a week, but money was unexpectedly taken out for housing, and no meals were provided during the long nights of technical rehearsal. After taxes and housing costs, she was making just $170 a week.
Frankenberg, who played Eleanor Dare, was one of the most seasoned actors in the production. A citizen of Cherokee Nation with Choctaw and European heritage, she was in a unique position to represent the cast. The ensemble selected her to negotiate with management. Partway through the season, she helped convince the board to pay cast and crew on a weekly basis instead of every other week
“Some people don't have access to getting a second job, and so they're really only relying on this paycheck,” Frankenberg said. “People couldn't eat, people couldn't live their lives.”
Frankenberg also said it’s normal for summer theater productions to provide housing as part of the pay, but cast members were being charged for utilities while the buildings were in need of renovations and did not include internet or laundry machines. They had to use a laundromat in town, a 15-minute drive away. Many of them didn’t have cars.
Customarily, actors who have special skills—playing an instrument or juggling onstage—receive extra pay for that. All the Native actors except Frankenberg were brought in to powwow dance, “the rarest skill set in the show,” she said. Still, most of them were receiving the production’s minimum wage for actors.
“It's not about the money,” Lewis said, “but it's the fact that we could be doing something else with our summer. We could be doing other shows with our summer or going out into these other places that's not surrounded by this racist community.”
One day, Lewis and a few castmates were at the laundromat. She was taking her clothes out of the dryer when she heard someone say, “Oh, you play Wanchese?” followed by the mocking sound of a cartoon Indian.
She and the other actors wanted to leave, but the local man kept chatting with them, so they remained polite. “If we act in a certain way, oh we're the savage Indians: ‘They’re acting crazy, playing the part of the stereotypical type of Native,’” Lewis said. “[He] gave me a very uncomfortable and very unnerving feeling. He just looked at me with, like, lust and disgust at the same time.”
Leering at her, he said, “Oh, you're not one of those Indians, are you?”
Manteo High School’s mascot is still the “Redskins.” In 2020, as the Washington Football Team finally retired its racial epithet of a team name, the Dare County school board unanimously voted to keep it, even as a petition urging them to change it received over 12,000 signatures.
Opening weekend is typically a time of celebration. But leading up to opening night in 2021, the production heard rumors that some locals were going to drive their boats near shore directly behind the stage and blast foghorns to drown out the show. This didn’t happen, but the national park kept extra staff on-hand that night to handle any disturbances.
Every year on opening night, alumni from the cast and crew return to party at the actors’ housing to share libations and swap stories. Because of COVID, the party (known as “The Slaughter”) was just for the current cast. Still, company management was concerned after hearing of a credible threat of violence, so they hired deputies from the Dare County Sheriff’s Office to protect the actors’ apartments that night. No one explained the situation to the actors. When they returned home after their show, they found patrol cars in the parking lot and officers walking around with flashlights, looking in their apartment windows.
The actors tried to call the production’s general manager. He was “radio silent. We couldn’t get a hold of him,” Frankenberg said.
Several ensemble members say that when a castmate asked the officers why they were there, one told them it was to prevent any fights from breaking out. When the cast member responded sarcastically, the officer said, “Looking forward to using this,” held up his stun gun and activated it. (In response to a request for comment on the incident, a representative from the Dare County Sheriff’s Office said they have “no information about any officer that fired a taser at that location.”)
For the cast and crew, the whole summer teemed with tense, uncomfortable encounters. Bradley, too, acknowledged that the 2021 season faced considerable animosity from some in the community.
Oxendine remembers one night in the second act during “Big Battle,” an audience member shouted, “Yeah, you should kill all the Indians anyway!”
“The community would make it really clear how they felt about us,” Frankenberg said. “If we mentioned that we're a part of The Colony, the air about them would immediately change.” She said people ranted at them frequently about “the changes” to the show—even people who hadn’t seen the new version.
“Everyone has some sort of connection to the show. They were either in it as a baby or their mom was in the choir for 30 years or something,” she said. “So the show is really precious to people.”
Act IV: Moving Forward
“I swore up and down, I was never coming back,” said Kayla Oxendine one afternoon this June at a cafe in the Outer Banks. “I told my friends if I got nostalgic and said I wanted to come back, to remind me of what happened, so that way I could be knocked some sense into.”
But when the casting call came in March 2022, Oxendine decided to audition again. She returns this year to the role of the Storyteller.
“Last year was a lot of drama and really traumatic for me. So this year, I wanted to come back and have more fun,” she said. “I do believe in being influential and the power of change and the power of cooperation. And instead of being the people who just complain from the outside ... I want to be the change that I want to see in the world, I want to be the change that I want to see in this play. So I’m being it.”
Both Littleturtle and Oxendine say this year’s experience has been a lot more positive so far. The open hostility from the community has toned down immensely. Even the locals this reporter spoke to who are still displeased with how the play has changed say they’re glad the show is now including Native actors. (Online reviews offer some sense of the pushback.)
The Roanoke Island Historical Association has increased its commitment to the cast and crew by raising the actors’ base salary, providing meals during tech rehearsals, and making the rehearsal schedule less demanding.
It’s also doing more educational outreach, which Littleturtle organizes. Every Wednesday, he brings 15-30 Native and non-Native kids from across North Carolina to see the show; the association covers the costs of tickets, travel, and food. A few hours before seeing the play, the kids attend a cultural showcase where Native cast members perform and teach about their traditions and theatrical skills.
Whiting, who is back for a second season as director, has made more changes to the play to make the storyline easier to follow and reintroduce some of the original elements that were taken out last year.
The 85th season has also added a new lighting system, along with 3D projections that help set the scenes—from Queen Elizabeth’s garden to the colonists’ ocean voyage to the fort at the Roanoke colony. Along with the cinematic score that was added last year, this year includes two Native drummers who play and sing during scenes that take place in Indigenous territory.
In 2021, the play opened with a modern powwow dance and then transitioned to the 16th century in the New World. Many audience members said the time-hop was confusing. To clarify this, Littleturtle created a cultural showcase that starts at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 30 minutes before the play, which features singing, storytelling, and dancing from some of the Native cast. There are also more Native actors this year: 15, representing 10 tribes from around the country.
Though the show is still a work in progress, everyone from Oxendine and Littleturtle to Whiting, Bradley, and Godwin feel it’s moving in the right direction.
“We have to keep in mind that this is a story from the colonists' perspective,” said Oxendine, “and that it ain't about the Indians, that the Indians are here to support the story. They are an active part of the story, but the story is not about them.”
Though the new script includes a lot more dialogue from Wingina, Manteo, and Wanchese, their perspectives can sometimes feel swept aside amidst a fast-moving play with a lot of choreography, special effects, and visual sequences.
Green’s original script moved deftly between comedic and dramatic acting styles, using both poetic Elizabethan language and simpler Vaudevillian schtick. But the play has been shortening its run time and abridging long speeches for decades (Green’s original play was over three hours, now it runs less than two with intermission), as audiences of the Disney- and Netflix-era are assumed to have less patience for theater.
Still, Oxendine and Littleturtle both expressed the hope that there might be more character development for the Native characters in future years.
“The campy nature can sometimes maybe be misinterpreted to say, ‘Oh, well, the English did nothing wrong, and it was the Natives’ misinterpretation of their actions which caused the war.’ We know that's not how that happened,” said Littleturtle. “There was serious turf disputes that resulted in rape and murder, and then there was retaliation. How do we appropriately tell that on stage? We're figuring that out.”
And that, he says, will take more than two seasons to get right after 83 years of “colonized storytelling.”
As for the past practices of redfacing and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, Littleturtle said, “There's people that would love just to sit and continue to harp on that ... You won't hear me do that.”
Littleturtle said, “I was never ever going to go back” after his first experience with the show over a decade ago. But to him, the efforts to adapt it have been worthwhile.
“I would not be there at all if they weren't committed to making a change,” he said. The Lost Colony has admitted it was wrong, apologized, and started collaborating with Native people.
“I can't ask nothing else. That's great. If we could all be that humble in our approach to fix things." He laughed. “It’s a hard thing to find.”
Chris Kammerer is a master’s student studying journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are also a songwriter and banjoist, playing under the stage name “Old Sap.”