Summer Dramas Tell
Swashbuckling swordplay, authentic Native American culture and a renewed interest in the family vacation bring an art form born in North Carolina new fans this summer as the outdoor drama season heats up.
The Institute for Outdoor Drama, a one-of-a-kind public service agency of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, helps groups around the country mount over 100 productions. Its success is greatest close to home: the first three outdoor dramas ever staged in the U.S. are found in the state.
America's First Outdoor Drama: The Lost Colony Celebrates More than 70 Years
In 1937, Harnett County native Paul Green, already a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, created the country's first, "The Lost Colony," for Manteo, then a quiet fishing village on the Outer Banks. The play celebrates local history, telling the story of the first English settlement attempted on the North American continent, the doomed Roanoke colony sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Today, "The Lost Colony" attracts 50-60,000 visitors to Manteo each summer. A popular summer drama can spell tourism success for a town as interpretive attractions grow up around it.
The National Park Service rebuilt Fort Raleigh next to the amphitheatre, while the state commissioned a replica of a 1500s sailing ship, the Elizabeth II. She docks at Roanoke Island Festival Park, a state historic site just a short way from "The Lost Colony" theater. Hotels, restaurants and retail shops cluster around the attractions.
For more theatrical action in Manteo, catch the performances of Elizabeth R, featuring the captivating interpretation of Queen Elizabeth I by actress Barbara Hird.
Unto These Hills in Cherokee
A complex of tourism, including a recreated 1750 Cherokee village, also grew up around the nation's second oldest outdoor drama, "Unto These Hills."
Presented in a magnificent setting at the foot of the Great Smokies in Cherokee, N.C., it tells of the tribe's encounters with the invading white men, from first contact to the final Trail of Tears and beyond to the tribe's continued presence in the NC mountains. First performed in 1950, "Unto These Hills" is one of the nation's most popular outdoor dramas, with over 5 million people enjoying its famous Eagle Dance so far.
Exciting changes have been made in the classic play, aimed at creating a more culturally and historically authentic telling of Cherokee history. Audiences experience a completely new script, new director, new music, new choreography, new sets, new costumes and a new cast.
Horn in the West in Boone
The nation's third oldest outdoor drama is also in North Carolina. "Horn in the West," in Boone, recounts the frontier exploits of Daniel Boone, one of the town's founding fathers, as well as local involvement in the Regulator uprising of 1750 and the battle of King's Mountain a few years later. Visitors can explore the Hickory Ridge Homestead, a living history museum, and the Daniel Boone Native Gardens before the show.
Quaker Heritage & the Underground Railroad
The Quakers' role in North Carolina history is celebrated at Snow Camp, a historic Quaker village set on 15 acres in southern Alamance County near Burlington, which sponsors two outdoor dramas. Now well into its 3rd decade, "The Sword of Peace" tells of the Quakers' struggle to maintain their non-violent stance during the Revolutionary War. Quaker involvement with the Underground Railroad forms the plot of "Pathway To Freedom," presented since 1994.
Visitors can tour the outdoor museum before the show. Musicals and children's shows are also staged here during the summer.
From this Day Forward in Valdese
"We've enjoyed a steady increase in attendance," says Knolan Benfield, director of the Old Colony Players. "Maybe it's all the sword-fighting."
Next door to the amphitheatre, visitors can walk through the Trail of Faith that recreates many scenes of the Waldensian saga, or sample traditional Waldensian wines, made of Concord and other heritage grapes.
First for Freedom in Halifax
On April 12, 1776, the N.C. legislature passed the first official call for independence from Britain in the colonies.
The drama's amphitheatre was destroyed in a flood, but a loyal band of supporters, headed by Director Frankie King, moved the production to the 4-H Rural Life Center. Performances occur around the 4th of July weekend.
RETURN TO TOP
Amistad in Raleigh
The African American Cultural Complex in Raleigh presents the powerful "Amistad Saga: Reflections" each summer. Recounting the landmark civil rights case that followed the mutiny aboard a slave ship in 1839, it is the only outdoor drama written, produced and directed by African Americans in the United States.
Tom Dooley in Wilkes County
"Tom Dooley-A Wilkes County Legend" enjoys a summer run at a the amphitheater at Fort Hamby, near the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir just outside Wilkesboro. It played to sell-out crowds indoors at Benton Hall in North Wilkesboro for several years.
The same company, the Wilkes County Playmakers, has another North Carolina themed show "Moonshine and Thunder - The Junior Johnson Story" written and directed by the author of the Tom Dooley play, Karen Wheeling-Reynolds. The play is presented in October, also at Fort Hamby.
Free Shakespeare in the Parks
Not all outdoor dramas are historical. Three N.C. companies, plus one in South Carolina, present Shakespeare's plays, and other classics, for free in municipal parks every summer. Check their websites for this year's productions.
Attendance at outdoor dramas, which suffered a decline in the 1990s, shows signs of improvement. The success of epic movies, renewed interest in family vacations and the popularity of heritage tourism all contribute to the booming interest in historical dramas.
"We're expecting a strong summer season," Scott Parker, director of the institute at UNC said "After 9/11, we saw a real spike in patriotism, a renewed interest in heritage and history. Outdoor dramas are a great way to preserve and celebrate the history of our country."
The Institute for Outdoor Drama continues to encourage local communities to tell their tales. Parker says he knows of "at least three" new dramas organizing now in North Carolina.
Keeping a drama going is a big project however, and some communities have to take an occasional break to regroup and refurbish their historical dramas.
Shows on hiatus include:
Blackbeard in Bath
"Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag" presented at the Ormond Amphitheatre in Bath as part of the town's Tricentennial Celebration. The tale of the notorious pirate features plenty of swordplay as well as the story of his visits to North Carolina's oldest town.
Bath, the state's first incorporated town, celebrated its 300th birthday in 2005 by bringing back its most notorious resident. After an absence of 18 years, "Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag," a historical outdoor drama, returned to the stage in a brand new amphitheatre. Written and directed by Stuart Aronson, the drama tells of the real life romance between Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, and a young lady of Bath, during piracy's final days.
The Ormond Amphitheatre is currently the home of Walk in the Light Productions, presenting historical and inspirational dramas.
Strike at the Wind in Pembroke
Another Native American drama returns to the stage in southeastern North Carolina: "Strike at the Wind!" tells the story of the Lowrie War, an important episode in the history of today's Lumbee Indian tribe. The musical, with score by Willie French Lowery, a native Lumbee songwriter, runs weekends through Aug. at the N.C. Indian Cultural Center near Pembroke.
Listen and Remember in Waxhaw
Since 1965, the little town of Waxhaw, just south of Charlotte, has put on a drama about the life of native son Andrew Jackson, called "Listen and Remember" including the continuing question of which side of the state line he was born on.
The Founding of Sneydsborough
"Ripple in the River," Helen Goodman Amphitheatre, Polkton. The Anson County Writers' Club's story of Sneydsborough, N.C., a small, bustling port at the headwaters of the Pee Dee River, which thrived from the late 1790s until just before the Civil War. On hiatus while funds are raised for new theater.
The Anson Country Writer's Club and the Anson Children's Theater presents a play based on the "Ripple in the River" characters at Christmas each year.
Duplin Voices: An Adaption of the Duplin Story - telling the story of Duplin County’s evolution, from its founding in 1749, through its contributions and sacrifices related to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and includes William Thornton’s space flight.
"Worthy is the Lamb," Crystal Coast Amphitheatre, Swansboro. J.T. Adams, playwright. The White Oak River was the backdrop for this passion play beginning with John the Baptist's arrival in Jerusalem. The 300-foot stage features three life-size replicas of buildings in Biblical times; staff members dress in garb of the 12 tribes of Israel; sheep, horses and Solomon the camel are among the cast members. The recorded soundtrack features more than 150 Shakespearean actors in speaking roles and a symphony orchestra.
For the latest news on outdoor dramas across the state and the nation, visit the Institute's website: