Della Basnight Returns To ‘The Lost Colony’ As Dame Coleman
In the following press release, The Lost Colony actor Della Basnight talks about growing up with Dame Coleman.
“I first auditioned for The Lost Colony when I was six or seven, and I had to go alone because Mama could not go with me”, said Della Basnight as she talked about her return to the stage of the Waterside Theatre in this season’s production of Paul Green’s The Lost Colony.
She entered the old Courthouse, where the auditions were held, with great confidence and was determined to be a part of the show. When asked by the director if she could behave backstage, she replied, “I’ll be real good.” Her response generated a big laugh from the crowd. That was it…her first laugh…her first vote of confidence. She liked it and wanted to make people laugh; she knew the stage was for her.
When asked who would take care of the young girl, Maggie Mitchell spoke up and said that she would take care of young Della. Maggie was playing one of the colonists just like many older women in the community who would work in the show through the christening scene and go home afterwards.
Della was well taken care of and her brothers Saint and E.J. were both part of the tech crew working on the show along with many local men who would help to change scenery. In those days the actors did not change the scenery; it was all done by locals who joined the team of over 125 to make the show move smoothly. Della’s sisters had all been in the show as Indian dancers and milkmaids. Sarah, Sally and Dottie were soon followed by baby sister Della.
“The first director I remember was a very kind gentleman by the name of Clifton Britton. He made everyone feel important and was a master storyteller. He even created workshops for the young people involved in the show, and it was there that I first played Dame Coleman.”
Della credits Britton with teaching her the importance of discipline in acting, and encouraged her to stay with the show and to enjoy the theatre on every level. Other members of the Basnight family soon joined the cast when brother Marc became one of the kids and mother Cora Mae became Agona. As a youngster Della remembers admiring the beautiful and talented Barbara Griffith, Marjalene Thomas, R.G. Armstrong, and Andy Griffith.
“These were my idols and my teachers”, Della said with great affection.
Della remembers both Burnet M. Hobgood and William Ivey Long, Sr. filling in for Britton when he was involved in projects in Hollywood.
In 1964, a new director by the name of Joe Layton joined The Lost Colony family and continued to direct the show for 21 years. Layton brought with him an impressive resume of Broadway, film and television as both a director and choreographer. He made many changes over the years, and made the show much more exciting and colorful.
He worked on every aspect of the show and created beautiful stage pictures using the entire theatre space. He surrounded himself with a strong creative team also from New York. “I learned so much just watching him work. He had every picture in his head and then he painted the stage with one dramatic stroke after another.”
In 1971 Della first played the role of Dame Coleman on the main stage. Remember she had played the same role in the workshop production as a youngster under the direction of Clifton Britton. This time she shared the stage with her mother who had already become a legend in the role of Agona, a role she would play for 27 years.
Now she was working under the direction of Joe Layton. Ira David Wood, III (the director of the 2013 production) was playing the role of Old Tom. Della was the youngest actress to play the role of Dame Coleman and she vividly remembers watching veterans like Marion Fitz-Simons and Gerd Young play the role.
“Working with Joe was a real joy, and he taught me so much about acting and about myself”, she recalls.
She became lifelong friends with Joe, his wife Evelyn and their son Jeb. After playing the role for several years, Della left Roanoke Island in pursuit of other career opportunities. Although she lived in California for several years, Manteo always remained home.
Her ties with The Lost Colony and the lasting friendships would stay with her for years and would eventually bring her back to the stage.
Della and Ira David Wood, III had remained friends over the years, and Della has served on the Board of Directors of his Theatre in the Park in Raleigh. When David was hired to direct the 2013 season of The Lost Colony he called Della and said, “You’ve got one more Dame in you.” Della’s response was, “Only if you don’t make me walk over that roof with these new knees.”
Well, the new knees are on stage every night and she gets her laughs in the fishnet scene. Remember, she loves her laughs…just like that first laugh she got in the Courthouse when she was a child. Working with David has been a great joy for Della and she loves the way he has paid tribute to the work of Joe Layton who taught them so much about theatre. David has brought back many of the Joe Layton trademark touches to the show.
“In David’s hands, the story is easy to follow and you always know exactly where to look. I am so pleased to be a part of this production and every night my eyes fill with tears in the final march,” Della says as she wipes her eyes in order to continue. “Shakespeare, she said, can be done anywhere, but The Lost Colony can only be done on Roanoke Island.”
Summer nights Della can be seen on the stage of the Waterside Theatre surrounded by both her old and new friends. She loves the energy that comes from the audience, the support and encouragement from the cast and the knowledge that those who have gone before her are watching and cheering her on as she once again plays in the sand.
As she leaves the stage she often hears a “good show tonight” from the shadows. Could it be the ghost of Tommy Hull, Irene Raines or Gordon Clark?
For Della Basnight, the third time as Dame Coleman is the charm. Join her in this celebration of our nation’s beginnings on the spot where the actual story took place.
The Lost Colony runs nightly except Sunday through August 23 at 8pm at the Waterside Theatre, located in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island.