By Dave Fairbank/Correspondent
As disappointed as everyone associated with “The Lost Colony” was about its pandemic-related interruption in 2020, the production’s brain trust also embraced the time off as an opportunity.
When audiences see the 2021 season’s reboot of the nation’s longest running outdoor drama, they’ll see a familiar production under new direction that’s crisply paced, visually striking and aurally sweeping. The tale remains faithful to playwright Paul Green’s original vision, first performed 84 years ago, and has evolved to better and more accurately present Native American traditions and characters.
“A lot of it is going to be new and fresh for the audience,” says Kevin Bradley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA), the group that administers the production. “If someone has seen the show, this is going to be a different experience for them. This is going to be a different way of telling that story, but it’s still going to be the Paul Green story.”
The most notable change is the emphasized inclusion of Native American actors and influences on the story. Bradley referenced an online petition circulated by an East Carolina student criticizing the production for using white actors in bronze makeup. The petition drew hundreds of signatures and prompted phone calls and discussions about a change. He said that audience surveys in recent years often mentioned the lack of participation by native peoples.
The RIHA board added Harvey Godwin, Jr., chairman of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, and reached out to representatives of the Lumbee, Pamunkey and Cherokee tribes for input.
“They all said the same thing to me,” Bradley says. “‘Some of the stuffin the play is not accurate, and you really ought to think about it.’ After talking to Native Americans, that was all I needed to hear.”
The production’s dances, music and drum rhythms will better reflect native customs, and 11 actors of Native American ancestry will portray indigenous characters in the play.
Those changes were crucial to landing director Jeff Whiting for this year’s production. The 49-year-old Denver native is a Broadway fixture and theatrical innovator who was described in the New York Times as a “director with a joyous touch.” His credits include “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Big Fish,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Young Frankenstein” and the Broadway revival of “Hair.”
Whiting was unfamiliar with the Lost Colony’s story before Bradley and the RIHA board reached out. They sent videos of the play and background information, and Whiting visited Roanoke Island last fall. He was attracted by the Waterside Theatre, where the stage is one of theater’s largest. More importantly, he was intrigued by the history and mystery of the story.
Before Whiting signed on, he was assured by Bradley of a greater emphasis on roles for Native American actors. He also reached out to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, and its renowned Native American dance troupe Living Legends for assistance. He was able to enlist the group’s Jerad Todacheenie, who is of Navajo and Tlingit Alaskan ancestry, to join him as assistant choreographer.
“Once I knew that both of those pieces were in place, I felt comfortable that I could do it correctly,” Whiting says. “I have the desire to do it, but without really knowing the culture, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Whiting says that the past several months have been a crash course on local 16th century history, Algonquin tribal customs and Elizabethan England, along with noodling ideas and scenes and contingency plans in the event of changing conditions. An outdoor venue presents challenges in terms of lighting, wind, temperature and rain that don’t exist within the controlled environment of indoor productions.
“My job really is to find a new and innovative way to stage the show in a theatrical way that’s understood by an audience,” Whiting says. “The script itself, as Paul Green wrote…that’s really what it’s all about. I lean on those words, and yet the message is the same, as to how does a modern audience see and understand such a work?”
Some dialogue and lengthier speeches have been trimmed, and there will be more music and movement. Whiting enlisted Broadway composer and arranger Sam Davis to create a new symphonic score for the production. Davis, who arranged the dance music for the hit movie musical “Beauty and the Beast,” collaborated with Lumbee cultural advisor Kaya Little turtle on the score for what Whiting calls “a pretty cool mash-up of theatrical and native music.”
Three new, authentic Native American dances have been added—a hoop dance, a “fancy” dance and a traditional dance— that will total approximately 10-12minutes. There will be more lighting and visual attractions and staging changes—what Bradley describes as “wow moments.”A Woman of Native American descent will provide narration, in keeping with traditional roles as a tribal storyteller.
The 2021 season kicks off May 28 and runs through Aug. 21, six days a week with Sundays off. Start time is pushed back from 7:45 to 8:30 p.m., Bradley said, to permit people a full day’s activities without rushing to the theater, and to take advantage of darkness and the natural backdrop in lighting and first-act presentation. Audience protocols were still being ironed out at press time and are likely to be fluid throughout the season, as restrictions lift.
Whiting is sensitive to pacing and presentation .He half joked that Netflix and other streaming services have shortened attention spans for modern audiences, which are accustomed to prominent visual cues and story arcs presented in an hour or less. He seeks input from those familiar with the show in order to gauge scenes and sequences that are untouchable and others that he might tweak.
“I’m determined to honor the past of the show and the actual history of what happened there, ”Whiting says. “As I sit and plan in every meeting I have, I’m trying to imagine the show as if I’ve never seen it before: What’s going to interest me, and what do I need to know about the story in order to understand it better and see it visually? I think it will be an interesting visual experience and yet the words will be the same. I really lean on Paul Green to keep me balanced.”