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A North Carolina town’s historic play ends redface and hires Native actors

ROANOKE ISLAND, N.C. — The outdoor stage grew dark. Humid night air closed in, cicadas buzzing, the waters of the Albemarle Sound lapping in the background. Native American drumming and singing swirled out of the shadows, then fell silent.

A spotlight illuminated Kat Littleturtle.

“Every place on Earth,” she began, “has a story to tell.”

And as it has for most summer nights since 1937, the musical drama “The Lost Colony” spun out the story of an English settlement that disappeared from this very shore some 436 years ago. The production’s churchy songs and costumed pageantry once inspired a national craze for outdoor stage spectacles celebrating a romanticized view of history. But the telling is a bit different now.

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Instead of being narrated by its original “historian” character — sometimes dressed as a park ranger — “The Lost Colony” is guided by Littleturtle, a Native American storyteller. Where the Indian characters that colonists confronted once spoke gibberish and pidgin English, they now sing authentic tribal songs and speak Algonquian.

Most profoundly, those Native American characters are finally being played by Native American actors, instead of White actors coated in reddish spray tan.

The changes are part of the Roanoke Island Historical Association’s ongoing three-year effort to refresh the 86-year-old play. Some updates are aimed at today’s video game sensibilities, such as quicker pacing and high-tech light projections. But others are an attempt to rebalance the story itself, giving value to more than one point of view.

In this era when teaching history has become politically charged, any tinkering with tradition is risky. Many of the new elements have stirred anger among generations of Outer Banks residents and vacationers who grew up with the old version, which won a special Tony award in 2013 and in which the beloved actor Andy Griffith got his start.

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“Totally ruined this family classic,” one reviewer wrote on Tripadvisor, after the initial changes were implemented. “Be Woke somewhere else but not here.”

For opening night in 2021, the first time that all Native actors played Native characters, management hired sheriff’s deputies to guard cast members’ lodging in case of threats. Nothing materialized, but debate has raged since about whether the modernized production strays too far from Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Green’s original vision.

No group has been more vocal than the play’s alumni, many of whom are organizing an online “‘conversation’ about the future of the Lost Colony production” and battling management for access to financial information, worried the changes are causing damage.

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Georgann Eubanks, executive director of the Paul Green Foundation, said he thinks Green would see honor in the effort to bring his work up to date.

“I think the parts he wrote for the Native people, or at least the way they were portrayed there with the red face and the stereotypes that were present back then, he would probably want to be changing that by now,” Eubanks said.

A reckoning was overdue, Littleturtle, 77, said before going onstage for a recent evening’s performance. “Our ancestors were the ones that were here,” she said. Over the centuries, her people were killed, driven out, discriminated against and largely forgotten.

Around her, a dozen other Native cast members, most from the Lumbee tribe in southeastern North Carolina, relaxed at picnic tables on the water’s edge ahead of their curtain call. In just three short years, they have embraced their new roles in the mythology of the Lost Colony.

“When they sing on that stage,” Littleturtle said, pausing to blink back tears, “and dance, it is the ancestors in them. So,” she paused again. “It is very powerful.”

A mystery of colonial history

The story this place has to tell was always complicated. Roanoke Island contains one of the great mysteries of America’s origins, and no popular play about it could ever be quite as strange as the truth.

Sir Walter Raleigh tried to establish the first English colony in the New World here beginning in 1585, 22 years before Jamestown. Tucked between the mainland and beaches of the Outer Banks, Roanoke Island had been home to Native people for centuries. By the time Raleigh’s expedition of more than 100 men and women landed in 1587, English scouts had wrecked relations with many of the local tribes and killed the powerful King Wingina.

The settlers decided they needed reinforcements. Their governor, John White — who was an artist, not an explorer — turned around and sailed right back to England, leaving his pregnant daughter behind. She soon gave birth to the first English baby born in the New World, Virginia Dare.

It took White three years to get back to the colony. When he arrived, the island was deserted. The letters C-R-O and Croatoan were scratched into a tree and a palisade post, suggesting the colonists had taken refuge with the Croatoan Indians to the south. But White didn’t go looking, and their fate remains a mystery.

By the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century, Virginia Dare had become a national symbol of White womanhood disappearing into a savage land. The Roanoke Colony Memorial Association commissioned Green, a North Carolina native, to develop an outdoor play honoring Dare for her 350th birthday in 1937.

Green was known as socially liberal; he had won a Pulitzer for a sympathetic play about a Black man and later wrote a script about Lumbee Indians. But “The Lost Colony” was a product of the era, celebrating the arrival of the colonists and the birth of Dare as almost holy events. The Indians primarily served as foils for the English-centered plot.

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Recent discoveries suggest the real relationships were considerably more nuanced. While the English settlement has never been located, archaeologists found a tiny coil of copper wire earlier this year at the remains of a first-contact-era Indian village just up the shore from the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where “The Lost Colony” is performed. The Native people had no copper; this would have been a gift or item of trade from the English, said Eric Klingelhofer, vice president of research for the First Colony Foundation, who has overseen excavations.

That suggestion of coexistence goes along with other recent findings on the mainland, where Elizabethan relics near another Indian village raise the possibility that English refugees from the colony were allowed to live and farm in harmony — a hint, possibly, of what happened to those who were “lost.”

“It shows that instead of hostility, it was the exact opposite. It was collegiality; it was cooperation, really, at least by that tribe of the Chowanoke Indians,” Klingelhofer said. “It shows what existed for a while, as opposed to the later stories of conflict.”

Racial reckoning and recasting

Over the years, complaints occasionally erupted about the depiction of Native Americans in “The Lost Colony.” In 2019, when neighboring Virginia’s leaders made headlines with a blackface scandal, threats of protests arose against the play’s “redface” practices.

The following year, the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police sparked demonstrations nationwide over issues of social injustice. In much of the South, that meant reconsidering Confederate statues; in Manteo, N.C., attention focused on the living monument of “The Lost Colony.”

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A petition quickly drew hundreds of signatures demanding action. When the pandemic shut down production of the play for the year, the historical association decided to act. Playwright David Thompson, who was nominated for a Tony this year for “New York, New York,” reworked parts of Green’s script. New director Jeff Whiting overhauled the production. And a Native American, Kaya Littleturtle, whose grandmother now plays the storyteller role, came in as cultural coordinator.

The first result, in 2021, was chaotic. “The play was a mess. There’s no other way to say it,” said Kip Tabb, a local writer who has extensively chronicled and reviewed the play’s changes.

The new technology was balky, and the initial effort to include Native Americans was awkward, modern drum lines clashing with the historical pageantry, Tabb said.

“It didn’t really work particularly well, and people didn’t like it,” said Chuck Still, who was hired as executive director last year to help restore order. “And some of the locals didn’t like the Native American cast. [They said], you know, ‘The Lost Colony has gotten all woke on us.’”

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Still said he ignored the racial comments. “When somebody starts a conversation like that, you’re not going to be able to reason with them about anything,” he said.

Kaya Littleturtle worked to build trust in the Native community to recruit performers, including his grandmother, a well-known tribal storyteller. He grew up near Pembroke, N.C., among the Lumbee people, and has deep connections to the circuit of powwows around the state and beyond. While most of the White actors affect English accents, the Indian players use their natural voices — and most have a distinct Carolina lilt.

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Featuring Native American viewpoints in such an iconic work has been “a huge moment for Native people. It’s very meaningful,” Littleturtle said. The aim is not to denigrate the memory of the English settlers, he said, but to elevate the Native side of the story so that both are respected.

Some of the play’s alumni bristled at the fact that the Native performers lack formal theater training. “It was commendable, but these folks weren’t actors, so there was a fairly steep learning curve,” said Dennis McGinnis, 71, who was involved in the production for 17 seasons, including as stage manager in 2021.

Their presence, though, has made many White actors reconsider their own experiences playing Native roles.

“I wasn’t thinking of it as painting it on as you would in blackface. I was taking it as a very serious character,” said Gail Hutchison, 62, who remembers using a makeup called “Texas dirt” to darken her skin for Indian roles. She has been involved with the play in various capacities since 1981. “Certainly people are much more enlightened now and more aware of how their actions affect other folks,” she said.

“It was doing redface — period, end of story,” McGinnis said, expressing regret over his single year playing an Indian. “It certainly enhances the story, having the appropriate people play the appropriate roles.”

A script Native actors are ‘proud of’

But changes to the play go beyond the actors. Littleturtle helped refresh the production itself. A major battle scene has been reconceived as a clash of large animal puppets fashioned from tree branches. Part of the intent, Littleturtle said, was to avoid the spectacle, night after night, of King Wingina’s head being cut off and tossed around the stage.

“We’re not opposed to showing violence against our people and by our people,” he said. “But what we don’t want is the violence to be romanticized just for the sake of shock and awe. We want to make sure those depictions of violence mean something, so people understand why it happened and that we should never, ever make this mistake against one another again.”

Another difference, added this year, involves the characters of Wanchese and Manteo, two Native men pivotal in the colony’s history. Both had been taken to England in earlier expeditions. Wanchese, of the Roanoke tribe, returned angry and distrustful, certain the English were going to exploit his people. Manteo cast his lot with the English at the colony, convinced they could become allies and help his Croatoan tribe grow stronger.

This year, Kaya Littleturtle approached the actor portraying Manteo, 21-year-old Nakya Leviner, and asked whether he felt comfortable with the character, who could be viewed as selling out his people. “He said he felt like there should be something to highlight his viewpoint more,” Littleturtle said.

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They spoke with Whiting, the director. Now, at a climactic moment as Manteo and Wanchese prepare to clash in battle, Manteo cries out about his inner turmoil: “I didn’t want any of this!”

“I’m really proud of that line,” Littleturtle said. He sees it “touching upon elements that we’re still living today, conversations about traditionalism and assimilation and how far we’re willing to compromise.”

Some of the changes continue to rankle traditionalists, but on a recent Monday night, a near-capacity crowd applauded the show enthusiastically. Tabb, the local reviewer, said many of the earlier problems with technology and staging are much improved this year. And the association says turnout is good. After being shut down for the 2020 season because of covid, the trouble-plagued 2021 season boasted the highest revenue and attendance in nearly a decade, according to the historical association.

Still, the executive director, said attendance is slightly down from 2021 but holding steady — though nothing like the peak of the 1990s, when vacationers had fewer entertainment choices and attendance was double current levels.

For the Native American cast members, the success of the play is measured in something other than numbers. They see a new level of recognition and acceptance. Three nights a week — Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays — the Native cast members attract a crowd for a pre-show of dancing and singing. Last year, organizers invited the Indian performers to march in the town of Manteo’s annual Christmas parade. This December, they’ll be there again.

“The biggest thing is, we’re onstage telling our story as Native American people,” Leviner said, during a recent backstage interview with his castmates.

“And we’re still here, and we’re real people, and we’re not made up,” added Catherine Ammons, 65.

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Ammons is from the Coharie tribe, near Raleigh. Her family tradition holds that she is descended from the Croatoans and that there might be English in her bloodline as well. She feels for both sides, she said: the Native people facing the end of their way of life, and the settlers stranded in a time of drought with no idea whether help would arrive.

“It’s very hard not to get emotional,” she said. “I mean, we walk in two worlds. The Native Americans, we walk in two worlds.”

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