Performance

Esther Rolle

Esther Rolle was an American actress who rose to fame for her role as Florida Evans, the matriarch of a working-class Black family, on the sitcoms Maude and Good Times. She was also a stage performer, an Emmy Award winner, and an outspoken advocate for racial justice and positive representation of Black people in the media. Esther Elizabeth Rolle was born on November 8, 1920, in Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bahamian immigrants Jonathan and Elizabeth Rolle. She was the tenth of 18 children, two of whom also became actresses: Estelle Evans and Rosanna Carter. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a seamstress.

Rolle grew up in a religious and musical household, singing in the church choir and playing the piano. She attended Blanche Ely High School, where she excelled in academics and drama. She graduated in 1936 and moved to New York City to pursue higher education and a career in the arts. She enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, but later transferred to Hunter College in New York. She also studied at The New School and Yale University, where she took courses in drama, dance, and literature. Rolle began her artistic career as a dancer, joining the Shogolo Oloba troupe led by Asadata Dafora, a Sierra Leonean choreographer who introduced African dance to American audiences. She became the director of the troupe in 1960 and performed at various venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.

She also pursued her passion for theater, making her New York stage debut in 1962 in The Blacks, a play by Jean Genet that featured an all-Black cast. She worked with several theater companies, such as the Negro Ensemble Company and the Henry Street Settlement’s New Federal Theater, and appeared in plays by James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and Orson Welles.

Some of her notable stage roles include Miss Maybell in Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972), a musical comedy by Melvin Van Peebles; Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1977), a Haitian-influenced adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy by Orson Welles; and Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (1986), a revival of Hansberry’s classic drama about a Black family’s struggles in Chicago. Rolle’s big break on television came when she was cast as Florida Evans, the maid of Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur), on the sitcom Maude, created by Norman Lear. The show was a spin-off of All in the Family, another Lear sitcom that tackled social issues through comedy.

Rolle played Florida from 1972 to 1974, earning praise for her witty and dignified portrayal of a domestic worker who often clashed with her liberal employer over politics, race, and feminism. She also impressed Lear with her charisma and talent, leading him to create a spin-off series for her character: Good Times.

Good Times premiered in 1974 as the first network sitcom to feature a Black family as the main characters. It starred Rolle as Florida Evans, John Amos as her husband James Evans, and Jimmie Walker, Bern Nadette Stanis, and Ralph Carter as their children J.J., Thelma, and Michael. The show depicted the joys and challenges of living in a Chicago housing project during the 1970s.

Rolle was instrumental in shaping the show’s tone and direction. She insisted that Florida have a husband who was a strong father figure for their children, contrary to Lear’s original plan of making her a single mother. She also fought for more realistic and positive portrayals of Black people on the show, especially after Walker’s character J.J., a goofy and stereotypical teenager who popularized the catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!”, became the center of attention.

Rolle left Good Times after its fourth season in 1977 due to creative differences with the producers. She returned for the final season in 1979 after Amos was fired from the show and James was killed off. She later expressed her mixed feelings about the show, saying that it had both “opened up doors” for Black actors and “closed some minds” with its comedy. Besides Maude and Good Times, Rolle appeared in many other television shows and movies throughout her career. She won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Special for her role as Mrs. Berry

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