Returning to an ‘Impossible’ Role

Returning to an ‘Impossible’ Role

The New York Times

Alexis Soloski

Amber Gray on ‘An Octoroon,’ at Soho Rep

Leaning against an upright piano, Amber Gray bent her voice and body to a song’s harmonies — tapping her feet, drumming her fingers, bowing her head, and turtling her chin forward and back.

A restless, dynamic performer, Ms. Gray recently appeared as the scheming Hélène in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” She was now rehearsing for a much more innocent role: the title character of “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

A disquieting adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s controversial 1859 melodrama, which opens on May 4 at Soho Rep, the play centers on a tragic love affair between the heir to a Louisiana plantation and Ms. Gray’s Zoe. Though raised as a decorous Southern lady, Zoe is one-eighth black, an inheritance that condemns her to the slave auction block.

After her musical rehearsal at the New 42nd Street Studios, Ms. Gray, who has the sort of careless glamour that can make a Baja jacket and acid-washed jeans seem very nearly elegant, retired to a futon in the green room. She spoke with Alexis Soloski about terrifying musicals, biracial identity and playing a difficult scene. These are excerpts from the conversation…

…What was it like to grow up as a biracial child overseas?

I was too young to really understand a lot of it. In the military school systems, kids were mean. People would call me mulatto all the time. My dad was like: “Don’t let people call you that. Say that you’re mixed. Say that you’re biracial.” My parents were really careful with me. They were clear that you can’t separate out the two sides. You’d be denying half of yourself if you did.

Before you became involved with “An Octoroon,” did you read the 1859 version?

I did. I got really emotional reading it. It struck a chord. Most other mixed and biracial people I know have at least one secret or lie in their family, have at least one person who is choosing to pass or is passing and doesn’t even know it. That theme is so common. I have a half sister who didn’t know she was half black until she was 11. I’m interested in telling these stories because it is my family’s history…

Read the entire interview here.

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