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    Donnetta Lavinia Grays Infuses A.C.T.’s “Let There Be Love” with Emotional Honesty

    Talented actress Donnetta Lavinia Grays is a great conversationalist who loves the art of storytelling, as evidenced by her standout work on compelling TV shows such as “The Blacklist” and “Law and Order.” Theater is where her focus and intensity especially resonate, as in American Conservatory Theater’s upcoming production, Let There Be Love. This intimate family drama tells the story of Alfred, a cantankerous and aging West Indian immigrant living in London.

    He has managed to alienate all of those around him—including his equally headstrong lesbian daughter, with whom he rarely sees eye to eye. That’s where Grays comes in, as she plays the daughter, Gemma. Here, Grays shares more about her role, the distinguished playwright who wrote the drama, and what she hopes to do when she is in San Francisco.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Please describe your character and how LGBT issues and culture are addressed in the play.

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I play Gemma, a thirty-something-year-old lesbian whose strained relationship with her father Alfred—around whom the play is centered—serves as a major thru line in the play. She is the daughter of this strong-minded surly immigrant man from Grenada who, in his mind, hasn’t lived up to the expectations he has set for her. Conversely, Alfred is far from the ideal father Gemma imagines. The play doesn’t examine the journey of coming out to your parents or being out as a point, but takes this interesting turn that deals a little bit more with the power of information. There are things both Alfred and Gemma know about each other, but refuse to let the other in on as a means of maintaining their emotional distance. It’s often biting and hurtful. Their relationship is damaged to the point where withholding these major life details—either joyful of painful—becomes a weapon. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

    GraysSan Francisco Bay Times: What attracted you to the role?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: It has always been important to me as a queer woman to fill spaces where we are being represented on stage. I hope to bring honesty and specificity to these roles, and possibly fill awareness and cultural gaps when a playwright from a different experience may not have fully considered our perspective in crafting their queer characters. More to the question, in regards to this piece, I have never played a role like Gemma before—someone whose emotional cracks are exposed despite her best efforts to hide them. I’m usually asked to have more control and authority, and it has been lovely to be a bit more rebellious.

    San Francsico Bay Times: So many of us over a certain age are dealing with parent/caregiving matters. Do you think that Gemma handles her particular situation well?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: That is a tricky question. Gemma and Alfred’s relationship has a healthy tarnish on it. But, there is an awesome responsibility children have for their aging parents’ care. Gemma makes the choice, along with her sister, to have an outside professional care person, Maria, take on the major responsibilities of Alfred’s care. A decision made without his input. For many of us, there is a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding getting outside care or putting our parents in homes. In Gemma’s case, however, I have to consider her willingness and ability to actually take on Alfred’s care and his willingness to receive it from her. Everyone’s story and resources are different. For Gemma, I think she is doing the best she can.

    San Francisco Bay Times: How is jazz woven into the drama?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Ah, the music. The music is the fourth character in this play. It’s the audience’s guide, in a way, into Alfred’s emotional state and, at times, our narrator. Music is Alfred’s source of solace. Whom he invites into that space is touchingly thoughtful and moving.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Please tell us a bit about playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and what it was like to work with him and his words.

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: This is actually the first time I’ve worked through to production with Kwame’s text. I got the chance to work with him on a workshop of his next play about the life of Bob Marley last fall. I think that he is a smart writer who pulls from his own experience as an actor when constructing a play. He writes with an emotional subtly that brews beneath the surface, and just sort of punches you in the gut without expecting it. He is generous and listens to his cast and treats them as collaborators. It is a similar way in which I like to work as a writer myself. So, I have now observed
    his process to my own benefit.

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    San Francisco Bay Times: What do you hope audience-goers come away with after having seen the play? For example, do you think there are any lessons to be learned, or insights that audiences might gain?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Oh man, I think this play will touch a lot of people. The themes and relationships are familiar enough to hit home. And it says a lot about the demands and assumptions we make of each other, pain we carry and how we communicate through all of it. I hope people leave with a sense that they can move past situations they never thought possible, and take control of their lives through the power of forgiveness. And, with that said, I hope they laugh a lot. There is a tremendous amount of humor in this play. There’s joy. I hope the play helps them find a little bit of that to take home with them.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Have you been to San Francisco before? If so, what are some of your favorite places to visit here?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: I have been here twice but just passing through. Now that I am here for a couple months I hope to eat at as many restaurants as possible and head back to New York ten times heavier. Thanks.

    San Francisco Bay Times: Your resume is incredible. Please highlight some of your work that our readers might have seen you in.

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Gosh, thank you. I spent four seasons on “Law and Order: SVU” as a tiny uniformed cop named Officer Ramirez. You probably saw me briefly in the movie “The Wrestler.” I played Evan Rachel Wood’s girlfriend in that. Slammed the door in Mickey Rouke’s face with purpose! But, honestly, I’m kind of that hidden yet familiar face on TV—played a lot of cops, nurses and indifferent ladies behind desks. San Francisco Bay Times: What else would you like our readers to know about you and your work?

    Donnetta Lavinia Grays: Let’s see, I am a playwright as well and my plays usually have queer women of color at their center. As a matter fact, the day Let There Be Love closes, my newest play Sam will be having a workshop at  Portland Stage Company in Maine. I fly right out the next day to be there with my director, dramaturg and company of actors for a week of diving into that. Shifting gears is one of the greatest parts of being a theater practitioner and I am grateful to be able to do so. Also, please hit me up online. I’d love to hear what folks thought of our show and continue the conversation:
    www.donnettagrays.com and www.facebook.com/DonnettaLaviniaGrays

    Let There Be Love runs from April 8–May 3 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For additional
    information and to purchase tickets, visit www.act-sf.org