Roberta Emerson’s life work revolves around her identity and how people make assumptions about her based on the color of her skin.
The UCF visiting lecturer and director of New Play Development at Orlando Shakes began acting when very young and decided to make a career of it. She earned a bachelor’s and master of fine art in acting and launched into the audition scene in New York. But very quickly — after dozens of professional auditions and roles — she realized she was needed in the directing chair.
“I had been in a lot of rooms as an actor that I didn’t feel comfortable in,” she says. “I wanted to start having more agency and the ability to change the rooms and the spaces that I was in so that other actors wouldn’t necessarily have to, and artists wouldn’t have to experience the things in the same way that I did.”
That launched a career that spans Florida, New York, Oregon, and the United Kingdom. The current student production she directs, Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine, is all about identity and perceptions.
“At its base, Fabulation is about what it means to be a Black woman in America; specifically, what it means to be a successful Black woman in America, and the biases that we perceive of what that should look like, versus what it does look like,” Emerson says. “And it’s about this particular Black woman going on a journey to find her own acceptance of what it means to be successful and/or not, and what it means to be true to oneself and/or not.”
Theatre, like all art, play a critical role in helping sustain and evolve society.
“Theatre has always been used as a tool to educate, to incite, to advocate, to represent,” she says. “It’s our job as artists to use our art to affect what’s around us, hopefully for the betterment of society.”
The New York native hopes her audiences laugh and reflect when they see the production, which runs through Feb. 27 at UCF’s Black Box Theater.
“The play does its job in terms of challenging the audience and hopefully challenging some perceptions that they may have about society, Black women, Black people, class, race, structure — it challenges a lot of thoughts that people run into,” she says. “And it does so in a way where you’ll find yourself laughing about it, and then find yourself going, ‘Oh, wait. Wow, I didn’t know that I thought that’” or ‘Why did I think that?’ or ‘Why was that the first assumption that I made about this person?’ So, it does a does a really good job of sending you back and forth in how you’re supposed to feel about it and what you think the story is. And Lynn Nottage (playwright) is very clear about that; She’s challenging biases when it comes to things that people find hard to talk about. And because we find it hard to talk about, she does it in the form of comedy, so it’ll hopefully stay.”
At the end of the day, helping eliminate stereotypes isn’t just about her personal journey in the performance world. It’s also about family.
As the mother of two school-age girls she understands that her contributions may also help shape who her daughters believe themselves to be and who they will become.
“I want them to know that all things are possible,” Emerson says. “So, I try to implement strength and vulnerability, willingness, and openness in my work, so that my children hopefully see somebody that they can be proud of.”
Emerson joined UCF as a lecturer in 2021. Previously she was the director of theatre for Dr. Phillips High School and Montverde Academy. She is well known in the Central Florida community as an actor and director. She’s performed and directed as part of the Orlando Shakes, Florida Repertory Theatre, Orlando Youth and Orlando Rep. She is also the Central Florida Community Arts associate producing consultant and the artistic directing consultant at the Garden Theatre. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in theatre studies.