An Iconic Summer Show Gets a Revamp to Respect Native Americans

June 1, 2021

For the first time in 84 years, this summer, “America’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama” has stopped using redface. The Lost Colony has also promised to cast Native American roles exclusively with Indigenous people and use authentic Native American dance and music.

Since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, dance and theater organizations worldwide have pledged to address systemic racism. But it was a petition that got the producers of The Lost Colony thinking about its racist history.

The 1937 play was inspired by the disappearance of a 1587 British colony on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and is performed, under the stars, on Roanoke Island, where the first ships landed. Exactly what happened to the 117 white men, women and children is the concern of the play, which has been performed for more than 4 million, mostly white, mostly wealthy tourists.

“There was a lot that I thought as a production we could do a little different,” says Kaya Littleturtle, who was the only Native American in the play 10 years ago. He’s glad to see that this year The Lost Colony‘s new director and choreographer, Jeff Whiting, is partnering with the Lumbee Tribe. Littleturtle, the tribe’s cultural enrichment coordinator, is assisting with choreography and doing all of the traditional singing.

“For our people, dancing is prayer in motion,” he says. “It’s how we uplift our minds. We say it’s medicine.”

“I’m happy that our people get to be on that stage and get to see that their culture can open life for them,” he adds. “For our cultural bearers, it’s going to be uplifting.”

Dancers wearing masks stand in a line to rehearse in a parking lot surrounded by trees.
A 2021 rehearsal

Courtesy The Lost Colony

As of opening night, only 12 of the 22 Native American roles were filled—at a time in the COVID-19 pandemic when performing artists are keen to return to work. Whiting hopes to have a complete cast next year. For this season, the production will go on with a smaller cast.

“For Natives, most don’t know about the show, or, if they have heard about it, it’s not the best thing for them to be associated with,” says Jerad Todacheenie, a Navajo-Tlingit-Alaskan dancer who’s performed traditional and powwow dances and specializes in the hoop dance. Todacheenie joined the production as associate choreographer. “The pay is not bad for a part-time job, but what makes it hard is moving across the country. And for Natives, we don’t see dancing as performing; it’s a part of our lives.”

Lee Wilhoite, who is white and danced in the show on and off from 1997 to 2009, says that in the past, the choreography tended to be a mix of contemporary dance and movements inspired by historical photos and sketches, as well as steps taken from Native American dances. The choreography changed regularly, she says. But what didn’t change: Each night Wilhoite was given a sponge and a bowl of paint to darken her skin. “I was so focused on working,” she says, “that I wasn’t thinking about appropriating Native American dance for my own benefit.”

Whiting, who has directed and choreographed for Broadway, opera and television, also consulted with David Thompson, who wrote the book for The Scottsboro Boys, to “sharpen the focus” of the script by exploring playwright Paul Green’s original and historical source material. Although the story itself hasn’t altered much, a Native American elder now tells it from her point of view. Previously, an historian or a park ranger took this role.

Whiting has made the show more of a visual spectacle, with puppets and extended dance sequences. During a two-week workshop in New York City, Todacheenie taught Whiting and his team hoop, smoke, war, traditional and friendship dances. “Dances that you’d see at any powwow,” Todacheenie says. “And since that’s the case, we can use them more for entertainment.”

Whiting says that once he had the dances in his body, he and Todacheenie began structuring the numbers for the production. Todacheenie also explained which dances cannot mix. Throughout the process, they shared video footage with Littleturtle.

Todacheenie says The Lost Colony is honoring his expertise. “I feel like they’re starting to realize—not just them, but historians and anthropologists—that maybe the Natives do have a good perspective on their own culture and history, even though we didn’t write it down and it’s a very oral tradition.”

But he remains skeptical. “The Lost Colony was pretty open, saying the show wasn’t respectful to Native American people, when they pitched this idea to me, which is truth, but it’s not the full truth. I found out that somebody petitioned for the change. It sounded like they weren’t wanting to change until this person really pushed for it.”

In May, the cast gathered at the theater on Roanoke Island for rehearsals. But before signing in, fittings and warm-ups, they came together for a smudging ceremony, a Native American cleansing ritual involving the burning of herbs and resins while saying prayers. “That’s never been done,” Littleturtle says. “And I think there’s a lot of healing in that.”