`Roanoak': clash of cultures

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The story of the lost colony of Roanoak has been turned into a three-part drama that rivals the best of the BBC costume miniseries of the past. Roanoak (PBS, Monday, 9-10 p.m.; also June 2 and June 9, 9-10 p.m.), an ``American Playhouse'' presentation, is an engrossing tale of a clash of cultures in the New World.

In 1584, a small band of Englishmen reached Roanoak (now spelled Roanoke) Island off the coast of North Carolina, set up camp, and made contact with the native Americans who lived there, calling on them for help in an attempt to live peacefully as they traded for the profit of both sides.

They took back to England two young native Americans and taught them the language and customs of England, and then returned with them in 1585 to establish a trading post that was secretly planned to be a colony.

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According to the Indians in this drama, which is based so far as possible on written accounts of the explorer-colonists, official documents, and watercolors by John White, who served as the colony's governor beginning in 1587, ``They asked for shelter, and they built a town.''

Not only do they build a town in this series, but they bring alcohol, disease, and sexual assault.

They interrupt indigenous ceremonies with drunken behavior and corrupt everything with which they come in contact.

They prefer looking for gold and glory to farming or hunting. So they begin to starve, depending on the Indians to save them.

``We must see the future through our own eyes, not yours,'' says one of the native leaders. And so the Indians feel obliged to move away in order to retain their own identity. Feeling insulted and abandoned, the British soldiers massacre those who had once aided them, killing their chief.

When new British settlers arrive under the leadership of White in 1587, this time a mainly a non-military force with friendly intentions, they are surprised to find that the Indians no longer welcome them and now treat them as enemies.

When White, who is forced to go back to England for supplies, returns to Roanoak in 1590, he can find no trace of the colonists.

``Roanoak'' explores the ambivalent feelings of both the native Americans and the British.

Throughout the miniseries, the Indians speak in an Algonquian language, since the dialect used by the Roanoke Indians 400 years ago is dead. English sub-titles are used.

Many of the parts are portrayed by native Americans.

Historic replicas of Indian villages and English forts were reconstructed in South Carolina, where much of the series was filmed. The English and Indian costumes are also authentic, though some of the native hairdos look a bit like current punk coiffures.

``Roanoak,'' a production of the South Carolina ETV Network and First Contact Films Inc., in association with the National Video Corporation, was directed by Jan Egleson and produced by James K. McCarthy and Timothy Marx.

At times the series seems to be too much a living tableau, as writers Dina Harris and James K. McCarthy strive for authenticity in speech as well as in attitude.

But the slow-paced dramatization eventually captures the viewer, enabling one to relate both to the native Americans and to the bewildered and sometimes blustering colonists.

It is a sad tale of the beginning of a chain of events that eventually leads to many tragic massacres.

``American Playhouse,'' now in its fifth season under the able aegis of David M. Davis and Lindsay Law, continues to fulfill its mandate to present innovative American drama.

With ``Roanoak,'' public broadcasting has dug deep into the past and come up with a lively, authentic series that serves the dual purpose of entertaining as it informs.

``Roanoak'' takes a bold and stimulating step toward reclaiming our historic cultural heritage -- native American as well as British.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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