WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – For the Garden Theatre, “A Raisin in the Sun” was full of firsts: First solo Black written show, first Black scenic designer and first Black director.
“The knowledge of that is monumental and it was definitely stress-inducing for a little bit because it can feel like a lot of pressure,” said Roberta Emerson, director of “A Raisin in the Sun” and current director of theatre at Montverde Academy’s Theatre Conservatory.
Emerson, who has played the role of director, actor and teacher in regional theaters across the United States and Europe, said she may be the Garden’s first Black director—and first Black female director, at that—but she won’t be the last.
“Going forward feels great and sad at the same time that it took this long,” Emerson said. “There’s a bittersweet quality to it. Let’s make sure that we do this again, please.”
The lack of representation in theater is not exclusive to Central Florida, according to the most recent study conducted by The Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Statistics collected after New York City’s 2016-2017 theater season show that of the productions presented, 31.1% featured female directors, and only 6.1% featured African American directors.
Joseph C. Walsh, artistic director at the Garden, hopes to continue trending toward diverse representation at the theatre, as indicated by his first words to Emerson in the rehearsal process.
“It’s about time,’” Walsh said.
According to the Garden’s Facebook page, the 2020-2021 season’s theme highlights the ways we think of home, and Walsh said he wanted to ensure the featured works engaged with the BIPOC community.
As the first play written by a Black female to be produced on Broadway, “A Raisin in the Sun” seemed like the perfect production to usher in a new era for the historically white theatre.
“Never has a particular project, never has a particular moment, more celebrated the mission of the Garden than this production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ It is innovative, it is impactful and it is inclusive,” Walsh said.
Emerson had crossed paths with Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic many times throughout her career as an actor, playing almost every role, but this was her first time directing it.
“Because I was afraid of it, I had to do it,” Emerson said. “It was very important to me to honor the text as is because there’s nothing wrong with it. But it was important to me to make it relevant to a 2021 audience. It is so specific and what is happening in the story and what is happening to those characters is still happening. And that’s the point. We still have these feelings as Black and African American people.”
While the play transcends racial barriers, Emerson argues it is only made universal in its specificity. She said the point of the play is not to create colorblindness, but to celebrate the characters as they are, and show the world we are not as far apart as we think we are.
“We all can connect with what dreams are and what it means to not be able to reach them when you want to and what that does to you and to your family,” Emerson said. “What Hansberry did in 1959 was put a Black family on stage and made people realize that they weren’t so far away from any other family, from the white families sitting in that Broadway audience. And it humanized Black people.”
And like the Younger family, whose journey we follow in the show as they navigate and pursue their dreams in the wake of Walter Sr.’s death, Emerson does not let her dream dry up like a raisin in the sun, the line in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” for which the play is named. While the Youngers’ dreams include buying a new house, starting a business and enrolling in medical school, Emerson dreams of creating change through live theater.
“I think the most radical thing that can happen is to put a bunch of people in a room and tell them a story. Make them listen to a story and relate and empathize with other people who are hopefully out of their comfort zone,” Emerson said. “You’re all connecting to the same energy and you’re all giving energy to the same space. That makes people have to become a part of whatever energy is in the space. And hopefully, at the end of those two and a half hours, when people walk out, there’s some change.”
In Emerson’s stint at the Garden, Walsh said he noticed the change. Every night, the audience would go from gripping their seats in silence, enveloped in an emotional finale, to erupting in applause at the curtain call. He saw a standing ovation after every performance.
“You can tell the audience feels like (Emerson) and her company, through the words of Hansberry, are speaking directly to them right now in 2021,” Walsh said.
He felt the ripples of change behind the scenes, too, and both he and Emerson hope to collaborate on future productions at the Garden.
“Listening to her and working with her makes me better at what I do. It makes me a better person, makes me a better artistic director,” Walsh said. “I’m so grateful for the experiences.”