Sunday, August 15, 2010

Memories, author Jeri Evans

The story of the Lost Colony has become part of the fabric of my family history. Oral history passed along from previous generations tells the story of the colonists, celebrates the birth of Virginia Dare and hints at a possible link between their fate and our beginnings. Our family has been celebrating their lives through story-telling prior to the beginning of the outdoor drama and by embracing the live performance once it became a reality.

Home base for my family is Washington County, NC, on the south shore of the Albemarle Sound, approximately 50 miles west of the Outer Banks. As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I traveled with my family on many trips to the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island. Our typical excursion was just for the day but at least once a year there was an over-night stay in order to see the Lost Colony drama.

Our family was large and we generally attended the Lost Colony as a group. I loved the play and was always eager to attend the performance. At that time, the entrance to the historic site was flanked by two large wooden towers placed there to create the impression of entering an actual fort. Riding through the entrance towers was very impressive to a small child with a large imagination. There were also log houses and a church on the site that were built based on an assumption of what the colonists may have created. All towers and other structures have long since been removed as they were not original to the site.

We would time our arrival at Fort Raleigh in the late afternoon. We’d purchase tickets upon arrival and set up our picnic area to enjoy a homemade dinner before the play began. There was usually time available for my cousins and I to visit the theatre before dinner. The stage and sets were open and we would play on the set acting out our version of the drama and taking turns pretending to be the main characters. The youngest cousins were always Virginia Dare by default because they could fit into the cradle. Members of the cast would occasionally stop and visit with us as we played.

At dusk we would proceed into the theatre and that’s when, for me, the magic began. The pathway to the theatre led through the oaks which had been shaped by coastal winds, twisted and bent at odd angles with long low branches that crossed over our heads. Lighting was provided at ground level but on both sides and above us it was dark. The entrance into the theatre was a replica of a wooden fort with double gates cut into the center of the structure. Once in the theatre, we always made our way to the right to seats in the middle of the right side section. The seating consisted of rows of benches with no backs and no cushions. The play began with haunting organ music that echoed across the theatre and a choir began singing a hymn. The narrator appeared to the left, illuminated by a spotlight and began the story of Raleigh’s colony. The organ music lingers in my memory, the sound gave me chills as a child and I confess I miss that sound when I attend the performance today. I was fascinated by the Indians and no matter how many times I’d seen the play, I was always startled when the Indians jumped out from the side stages and ran through the audience with their weapons, shouting their war cries. I laughed at the antics of Old Tom and Agona and wished Ananias Dare had been given more of a hero’s role in the script. Watching the colonists line up and begin their final march was always a poignant moment. I would try to imagine myself in their place and realized how frightened I would have been, and how brave they had to be, to march out into the unknown. I loved the sight of the English flag flying as they left the fort and the final stance of John Borden with Eleanor Dare holding little Virginia.

We were always quieter leaving the theatre than we had been on arrival. The story was powerful and thought provoking even for children. For me, seeing the play always increased my desire to determine if the fate of the colonists was part of our personal family history.

Is there a Lost Colonist in my family tree? Maybe, maybe not – that connection hasn’t revealed itself but that doesn’t diminish my commitment to the search for answers.

The Lost Colony story, both the actual historical event and the fictionalized Paul Green creation, hold a special place in my heart. We’re fortunate that this historical site has been preserved for future generations. I believe the search for physical evidence and the fate of the colonists will eventually be revealed through archaeological research and DNA testing.

One of my favorite lines from the play is from Act II, Scene 5, spoken by John Borden:

“And down the centuries that wait ahead there’ll be some whisper of our name – some mention and devotion to the dream that brought us here.”
- Paul Green, The Lost Colony

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