Esther Rolle was born and raised in Pompano Beach, Florida, about 25 miles north of Miami. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta and lived in New York for decades. But don’t be fooled by her American experience. Her culture is not baseball and hot dogs. It’s conch and Junkanoo. Rolle is a Bahamian through and through, down to her last name, which is the most popular surname on the nation of 700 islands.
As part of her appreciation for her Caribbean roots, Rolle – best known as star of the classic 1970s TV show Good Times – often traveled to other islands in the West Indies. In June of 1977 she visited Montserrat. When Rolle lived in New York one of her best friends was Marie Lee McBroom, who hails from Montserrat. McBroom’s daughter, Dana McBroom Manno, says her mom urged Rolle to visit Montserrat. Bahamian actor Calvin Lockhart once rented a home on Montserrat, and that was also a possible catalyst for Rolle’s visit.
When the Emmy Award-winning actress arrived in Montserrat her intention was not just to relax and enjoy the sun and surf. She wanted to engage with the public, including anyone involved in the arts. She was introduced to David Edgecombe, director of the Theater Group at the University Center in Dagenham. Edgecombe invited her to the campus.
Winston “Kafu” Cabey, a photographer and journalist who hosts the popular Drive Time program Thursday nights on Radio Montserrat, was a member of the Theater Group.
“She did some great drama workshops with us,” Cabey said. “She taught us voice control and body language. She showed us how to get into character and become the person we are playing.”
In 1977, many Montserratians didn’t own a TV set. And even for those who did, Good Times – which debuted in 1974 – was not among the programs televised locally. In the 1980s, with the popularity of Air Studios, celebrities became commonplace on Montserrat. But before that it was a big deal whenever a famous person graced the shores of the Emerald Isle.
“We knew she was an American and that she was an actress,” Cabey says. “It was only afterward that we realized how famous she was.”
Edgecombe became Rolle’s unofficial chauffeur during her stay in Montserrat.
“She liked the way I drive,” says Edgecombe, a playwright, journalist and former radio personality who is now a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. “She thought people in Montserrat drove too fast. She liked the fact that I didn’t drive at break-neck speed.”
Rolle stayed at the Vue Pointe Hotel, and Edgecombe took her to the homes of several luminaries in Montserrat, including Attorney Kenneth Allen Q.C.
Rolle also made it a point to meet with children. She visited Cork Hill School, where she spoke to students and they serenaded her in song. She also met with the group Y-Teen, a branch of the local YWCA. Juliette Brade, who was director for Y-Teen, remembers Ms. Rolle’s visit.
“She was a lovely lady who was very relaxed and obviously loved children,” says Brade, who now lives in England. “She wanted to meet children from various communities and backgrounds. She had a pep talk with them and they asked her questions about television.”
As it turned out, Rolle had an indirect Montserrat connection even before her visit to the island. Her sister Rosanna Carter, who was also an actress, helped start the Caribbean American Repertory Theater in New York in 1975 along with Montserrat playwright and novelist Edgar Nkosi White.
Rolle’s work with the University Center Theater Group proved beneficial for the performers, including Gus White, Glynis “Mon” Hunter, Wilfred Francis and “Bacchanal” Joe West. In late 1977, Edgecombe wrote, produced and directed the play Sonofabitch. The play was a smash in Montserrat, and Edgecombe took it to the Virgin Islands and Barbados.
Cabey, who designed the set for the play and had a minor role, says Ms. Rolle’s tutelage was crucial to the play’s success.
“At the workshops, if you did something bad she would tell you,” he says. “But when you did something good she would come over and give you a big hug — and you know she was a good-size woman. I owe a lot to her. She was a fantastic lady.”
During much of her show business career, Rolle — known for her deep voice and gap-toothed smile — had to hide her Bahamian accent while playing American roles. But in the 1989 movie The Mighty Quinn — which was filmed in Jamaica and helped catapult Denzel Washington’s career — Rolle got an opportunity to unleash her native tongue. She was convincing as the wheelchair-bound, pipe-smoking witch Ubu Pearl. Incidentally, the movie’s soundtrack featured the song Groove Master by Montserrat’s Arrow.
After Good Times was canceled in 1979, Rolle continued to work in movies and television. She won an Emmy Award that same year for the mini-series Summer of My German Soldier. She appeared in the John Singleton movie Rosewood in 1997, one of her final roles. She passed away in 1998 just nine days after her 78th birthday.