Not only is North Carolina the undisputed capital of historical outdoor drama, but it’s the home of the oldest such show, Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony,” a freely fictionalized recounting of the saga of the 115 English colonists who sailed to North Carolina’s Roanoke Island in 1587, made camp there, and were never seen again. (Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the Western Hemisphere, was one of them.) “The Lost Colony,” which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is performed at a waterside amphitheater in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a park located on the site of the Roanoke colony. Its better-known alumni include Andy Griffith and Steve Kazee, now starring opposite Audra McDonald in the Broadway revival of “110 in the Shade,” and the show remains one of North Carolina’s top tourist attractions….
“The Lost Colony” remains a wonderfully old-fashioned period piece whose unabashed patriotism and frank religiosity are redolent of a long-lost age of certitude. “Paul Green has written history with a compassion that turns his characters into unconscious symbols of a brave new world….Mr. Green’s wisdom is rooted in a poet’s love of a fair land.” So wrote Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of the New York Times, in 1937. I wonder how many critics would feel moved to use such language today….
“Unto These Hills,” America’s third oldest outdoor drama, has been playing since 1950 in a steeply raked, stunningly beautiful rustic amphitheater carved out of the side of one of the Great Smoky Mountains. Cherokee, the tiny tourist town that serves as headquarters of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, has evolved over the years into something resembling an Indian theme park, complete with an outdoor drama, a museum, a replica of an Indian village and (naturally) a casino.
The “Unto These Hills” now being performed in Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre is not the same show my parents saw and loved a half-century ago. That show, written by Kermit Hunter, a protégé of Paul Green who is briefly dismissed in the program of the current production as “a non-Native,” was a traditional plot-driven outdoor drama about one of the most shameful events in American history, the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from North Carolina to Oklahoma by the U.S. military in 1838. The new “Unto These Hills,” unveiled last year and rewritten for this season, jettisoned Hunter’s script in favor of a less downbeat, more historically accurate show in which a pair of Cherokee oldsters tell their grandchildren tales of the past that are acted out by the 75-person cast….
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