An Octoroon Star Amber Gray on the “Secrets and Lies” of Race and Theatre

News   An Octoroon Star Amber Gray on the “Secrets and Lies” of Race and Theatre
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon uses the plot of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama as a starting point for a fiercely hilarious, contemporary new play. Now playing at Brooklyn's Theatre For a New Audience, Soho Rep's highly theatrical production received its world premiere Off-Broadway in 2014 where it had two extensions and a sold-out engagement. Amber Gray, who plays the title character, opens up to about her immediate personal connection to the play, its ability to spark conversations about race and its lasting emotional impact.


An Octoroon is a play within a play. It is the story of modern-day, black playwright BJJ, who is prompted by his therapist to restage the 19th-century melodrama The Octoroon. It is an exercise in helping him get over his "minor depression." What happens next is a blur of laugh-out-loud dialogue, jaw-dropping theatricality and big emotional impact. The award-winning play looks at love, race and slavery in America today compared with over a hundred years ago.

<i>An Octoroon</i> stars Austin Smith and Amber Gray
An Octoroon stars Austin Smith and Amber Gray

"I just read the play and immediately connected to it in this way that I rarely do when I first read scripts," says Gray, who plays the title character from An Octoroon. "In a way, that terrified me. I cared about it straight away which is great, but also scary. There's an extra pressure." Grey's character Zoe, is one eighth-black (an Octoroon) and a free woman; the story follows her love affair with the white heir to a Louisiana plantation owner, George, which is threatened when Zoe's past reveals some unsettling secrets.

Gray also identifies as being of "mixed" race and says that she too, has discovered secrets from her family's past. "I think it's pretty common, among most other mixed kids or biracial kids, in America in particular, that when the races start mixing there's a lot of secrets and lies that start happening," she says. "It's pretty common and especially in mine." This personal connection was what enabled her to relate to the text almost immediately. "That play just strikes so many cords on a personal level. I instinctively understood it in some way."

Playing Zoe, who feels both shame and guilt when her racial past is revealed, is not "an easy" role for Gray and the actress admits that it took her a long while to feel comfortable in it. "I went through a phase of feeling really horrible about it, just utter shame when I would go out there," she says. "There's so much pressure to own up to what the play is. It's a funny thing when you step into the archetypes and the stereotypes yourself, a lot of the characters are just so extreme, they're almost clowns to prove a point." Gray says that many of cast experienced this similar feelings, particularly those who have to "paint" their faces to depict a different race as would have been done in the theatre 100 years ago. "My cast-mate, one of the people who has to put paint on his face, had to have a whole chat with himself about whether or not he'd be able to do it even though he found the play so impacting. It's very different if you're inside of it. It's humiliating if you don't get it right."

Whilst An Octoroon explores some very serious issues concerning America's slave history and racism both past and present, it's greatest achievement is doing this while being an incredibly funny and entertaining show. Often the play's most poignant messages are revealed through comedy and completely unexpectedly. "I love that about it. That you think you're watching one genre and then the bottom drops from underneath you. At moments you'll find yourself laughing and you'll think, 'Whoa, why am I laughing at that?"

For Gray, the brilliance in Jacobs-Jenkins' script is its ability to use comedy to spark important conversations about race. "The only way you can start having these conversations is if there's some humor involved, " she says. "If we just say the uncomfortable thing, we have to speak to the elephant in the room and just get past it. The play does that for you. It is so wonderfully offensive in moments and just immediately goes to the other side of that and you have to have those conversations." The actress believes that audiences feel "cracked open" to talk about race after watching An Octoroon, which is what makes it so impactful. "In this country, we don't really talk about it [race.] We avoid it like the plague and the only way to move through it is to talk about it."

"For me as an actor that is the most that I can hope a play will do, start a conversation with the audience. I don't expect it to provide answers, that's just not possible but to get people to start talking about it and share their opinions is a really beautiful thing, especially right now in this country," says Gray. "I crave theatre like this." The show, which utilizes a lot of audience interaction and relies on surprising them, is undoubtedly enjoyable for the cast. "I definitely get excited to go out there every night. It is totally fun to do," she confirms. The nature of such a show means that with every audience, the show can take on a new form. "I learned that with Soho Rep, it's kind of amazing how much that play changes with an audience there."

Gray says that the Soho Rep production has not changed much since opening at TFNA in Brooklyn, so audiences who missed out attending the sold-out run Off-Broadway last year can expect the same show this time around. 

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