The Lost Colony celebrates 80 years and is still a must see

By on June 21, 2017

Dancing at the the market. Below, Chief Wanchese confronts John White. Background, Capt. Ananias Dare and Chief Manteo. (Kip Tabb)

The fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island may never be known, but the telling of its story makes for great theater.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green wrote the script for The Lost Colony, the hope was for a successful season that would bring some tourists to Roanoke Island in the depths of the Great Depression.

Eighty years later, the nation’s oldest outdoor drama is still a success and is still filling seats at the Waterside Theatre.


Green’s vision of a historic pageant of life, love, political intrigue and courage played out across a world stage has survived largely intact.

The pacing is faster than the original to accommodate modern audiences; the lighting and special effects are 21st-Century theater spectacular — clothing catching on fire, burning buildings, done with techniques and materials that were not available in 1937.

But the language and central themes of his play are untouched.

What has always made The Lost Colony so good has been the acting, and the 80th Anniversary cast is as good as it’s ever been.

Opening with a spectacular dance celebrating the harvest of corn on Roanoke Island, the festivities are interrupted by the sudden appearance of English explorers.


The meeting is at first tense, almost becoming violent, but at last gifts are exchanged and two young chiefs, Wanchese (Phillip Culton) and Manteo (Joey Casella), return to England with the explorers.

Left on Roanoke Island are 100 men to establish the colony under the command of Ralph Lane (Christopher Charleston), described as a “brave and thoughtful man.” A description that is amended to “a brave man.”

It is Lane’s thoughtlessness that probably led to the eventual failure of the colony. Believing an Indian from the neighboring village had stolen a cup, he attacks and kills King Wingina (John Bennett), the father of Wanchese.


Wanchese discovers the death of his father when he returns with Governor John White (Terry Edwards), who Sir Walther Raleigh (Daniel Prillaman) has placed in charge of the expedition. Enraged he tells White the colonists have until the next full moon to leave.

The scene is powerful.

Wanchese, grief-stricken but knowing he is now the ruler of his people, likes and admires White, telling him that he knows his heart is good. But, he adds, he knows the heart of England desires only to own the land of his people.

White sails back to England promising to return with supplies and more colonists, leaving behind 115 men, women and children and his daughter Virginia Dare (Henson Milam), who will soon give birth to his granddaughter.

It is a promise he is unable to keep.

Queen Elizabeth informing John White and Sir Walter Raleigh there will be no ships leaving England.

England is at war with Spain, and Queen Elizabeth (Emily Asbury), fearful that a massive armada is being gathered against her nation, forbids any ship to leave.

In a compelling and heart-wrenching scene, White goes to the Queen, begging her to allow relief ships to sail. He tells her the colony cannot survive without supplies and that it is his daughter and grandchild who will perish if the ships do not sail.

Sir Walter Raleigh adds his voice to the debate. Raleigh, who has been high in the Queen’s favor, is told she has heard too much of “Roanoke, Roanoke, Roanoke.”

Then word comes that the Spanish Armada has sailed, and Elizabeth tells them that God has taken the decision from her hands. There will be no ships sailing to the new world.

At Roanoke Colony, despair has set in. There are only 60 of the original 115 left — disease and Indian attacks have decimated the population. There is but a two-day supply of food on hand.

The leadership has fallen to John Borden (understudy Dylan Smith filling in very well for Ethan Lyvers); Captain Ananias Dare, the leader of the expedition, was killed in the same raid that cost Wanchese his life.

A Spanish ship is spotted off the coast, and speculation runs high that Spain will rescue them.

John Borden will have none of that. With Eleanor Dare at his side, he tells the colony that he would rather die than submit and he knows there is a better life waiting for them if they leave Roanoke.

The colonists march off, leaving the Colony with only the word Croatoan carved in a tree to tell where they have gone.

Green’s script is filled with historic figures, but it is Old Tom (Robert Hooghkirk) who symbolizes the meaning of the new world.

Old Tom trying to avoid paying an irate tavern owner.

Providing the comic relief in the play, Tom sleeps in the gutters of 16th century London, he’s a drunk and a panhandler, barely avoiding the flailing cudgel of an irate tavern owner.

He sails for Roanoke Island because he is from Devon, as is Raleigh.

For him, the new world is transformative. Standing guard, alone on the palisade of the fort the night before everyone will leave, he muses on his life.

He wonders how it came to be that he, Old Tom, a failure in all that he had done in life, was now responsible for 60 surviving colonists. It is a monologue that speaks of personal redemption, belief in self and a hope for the future.

The acting in Lost Colony productions has always been outstanding, and this year was no exception.

Same for the dancing, truly professional in every way. The fight scenes were very realistic and well-performed, the equal of any stage combat at any theater.

The fight director is Robert Midgette, former physical education teacher at Manteo High School with 43 years at The Lost Colony, inlcuding 26 as Chief Manteo.

For visitors planing on attending a performance — this is an outdoor theater; insect repellent is probably a good idea.

Also, keep a light sweater or jacket handy. Waterside Theater is right on the water, and nighttime temperatures can fall rapidly after nightfall.

Known as “History’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery,” performances are held every night except Sunday through Aug. 19 at 7:45 p.m. in the Waterside Theatre located in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site at the north end of Roanoke Island.


  • Tom

    The lost colony play and all its associations are a used washed up concept. So what a group of settlers moved to a different area. Maybe with the Hatteras Indians or maybe inland. Maybe a ufo picked them up….haha.
    My point is…why rehash something over and over again. The play is nice I guess but its time to move on. I remember when I was younger and went to Manteo high school. We used to have parties there during the winter and the cops would chase us out…lol. good times. Its time to close down the play and let it go. 80 years is long enough…if fact way too long.

    Friday, Jun 23 @ 7:04 am
  • William Lowery

    Dear Tom, by your logic, we could abolish July 4 as a holiday since 1776 is so long ago and old hat that no one remembers why we grill hot dogs and watch fireworks. And the notion of Indians and Pilgrims sharing a meal in gratitude is too old school, so bye-bye Thanksgiving! Or looking further back, we could abolish Christmas, because the myth of a virgin birth 2000+ years ago with wise men and angels is just too much fiction to be believed! Forward thinking is obviously not your strong suit. If not for Sir Walter and Queen Elizabeth, but might all be speaking Spanish now!
    Good Luck! Thanks for the laughs!

    Thursday, Jul 6 @ 8:01 pm
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