At the start of her career, Kellie Overbey was in Los Angeles working in TV, but she kept coming back to New York to do theater because she missed it so much. When she made her Broadway debut in “Buried Child,” she chose to pursue that passion and moved to Manhattan and has never left. “I planted myself here because I thought, “There’s nothing better than this.”” the longtime East Village resident said. “And there really wasn’t.”
At the heart of the new play she is starring in, “Letters of Suresh,” which opens on October 4, is the art of letter writing, which she sees as a welcome change from the social media-dominated climate of the world today. “If you’re slowing down to write a letter and really thinking about what you’re saying and taking time to say things, you’re probably dropping into a place of intimacy that I think we don’t experience as much as we used to,” she explained.
As her first post-shutdown gig, the Broadway and off-Broadway veteran looks at the experience as both special and surreal. “It’s very familiar; it’s a thing I’ve done all my life, but now we’re in a bit of a new world, so it’s just kind of strange,” she said. At Second Stage Theater, where the show is running until October 24, it’s mandatory that actors and audience members are fully vaccinated and viewers must wear masks throughout the performance.
As an activist, Overbey also devotes her time to causes close to her heart. Her resume includes serving as the executive director of A is For, a nonprofit she started with fellow actress Martha Plimpton with a mission to eradicate the stigma behind abortion. She is also an Eastern Principal Councilor at Actors’ Equity Association and founding member of Fair Wage OnStage, a grassroots organization that helped leverage higher wages for the off-Broadway community.
In your own words, how can you explain “Letters of Suresh?”
It’s a play about letters and writing letters and how people use writing letters to communicate about each other’s lives ... Because of social media, I think, right now we live in such a performative world. People are sort of always putting on their best face for communicating with the world that it feels like a rarity now that people actually take off all of the masks. And by masks, I don’t mean COVID masks.
Amongst the cast, since it’s not a big group, what is the atmosphere like backstage? Are you tight-knit?
We are. I mean, it’s rare that a cast is not, I think, in my experience. Maybe I’m very lucky. You always form a kind of a mini family on the show. But the full cast and crew, we’ve all been very happy to be back to work. For many of us, for me, I know it’s true, this is my first job back post-pandemic, a pandemic we’re still living through ... And I find it shocking, actually, to have to get on the train every day to come up to Midtown and be somewhere else. I was surprised how taxing that’s really been to do because I’ve been used to being local, just walking around my own neighborhood and getting things done that way or dealing with people on my computer. If I never see Zoom again, it will be too soon. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.
What tricks do you use to memorize your lines?
I’m one of those people that you see on the subway talking to themselves. [Laughs] I just run them over and over and over again in my head. I’ve always been a fairly quick study though. That’s a question that we get a lot in talkbacks. And I like to answer it like this actually — you have stories about your life that you tell people and you probably have told the same stories many times. So you probably have even certain phraseology that you use over and over again. And it’s kind of like that — once you know the story you’re telling, the words are just the details, but you know what you’re gonna say. So in that way, it’s not that hard to do.
Tell us a funny onstage story or memorable moment from you career.
Memorable, that’s a big, vast archive to go into. Well, I mentioned “Buried Child,” I can tell one from that. There was a time when we were doing the show before it came to Broadway at Steppenwolf [Theatre] in Chicago and in that production, Ethan Hawke was playing Vince. I’ve done a couple of plays with Ethan, that was the first one. The second one was “The Coast of Utopia” at Lincoln Center. We became fast friends and had a really great time doing that play. I think this was early on in the show, so it might have been a preview or an early performance, but we had a moment onstage where he went up and it was in our scene where we enter, so we were establishing ourselves in the story. And I remember thinking to myself, “I am just gonna be steady as a rock here. I’m gonna be calm. I’m gonna look him right in the eyeballs and he’ll know I’m here for him and he’ll calm down and he’ll remember his line.” And then he did, and we went on with the scene and everything was great and I don’t think anybody was the wiser.
And I felt really proud of myself at that moment. And then later, when we were done with the show, he came to me and he says, “Kellie, you know you dropped your line, right?” [Laughs] I had been the one who had forgotten whatever I was supposed to say. So I don’t know, maybe my technique for memorizing lines isn’t so good because I did actually go up that time. But boy, I was confident that it was his fault.
Explain your role as executive director of A is For.
Well there’s a lot to do there too, isn’t there right now with abortion rights being threatened at every point of existence. Martha Plimpton and I started about 10 years ago. I would like to say it’s our passion project, but, in fact, it’s a thing that we’d love to be obsolete. We would love for this not to have to be a thing. But we felt we had to speak out ... I like to say that we bonded over our common anger. And we just decided that the intersection of those things was a good place to kind of take on this battle. In one way, anti-abortion stigma is the thing that A is For works to eradicate through the arts. Stigma is the thing that makes people ashamed to talk about their experiences and their needs and we know one-fourth of people who can get pregnant will have an abortion by age 45.
One of my favorite things about what we’re doing right now is that we have a one-act playwriting contest where we invite people to write plays about reproductive justice because theater, I believe, is a great platform for transforming mindsets ... And if you can offer an audience a more emotional language, you know when we talk about abortion we usually talk politically about it. And I just think it’s such a common experience and we need to hear more from the actual people ... lived experiences of this procedure and what it means to people and how it actually helps people.
Expand upon your volunteer work with Actors’ Equity Association.
Yeah, I’m very busy. [Laughs] I ran for Council in 2017 because I had been part of a grassroots group of Equity members called Fair Wage OnStage because another thing about stigma ... there’s this mythology that in order to work in the theater, you should be resigned to being destitute and of course, that’s silly. American theater brings in so much money to the communities they’re in. Off- and Off-Off-Broadway together generated $581 million for New York City, according to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. It’s part of the economic ecosystem of New York, off-Broadway. And we were specifically brought on to help leverage, at that time, the off-Broadway negotiations and it was a very successful campaign and we helped gain wage increases of up to 30 percent, I believe, for that contract cycle.
I ran for Council to have more of a voice in the room where it happens and so now I do and I make those arguments all the time. It’s a lot work, and it’s ironically, a volunteer position, but I’m very pleased and proud to be part of Council. I respect everybody on it; it’s 83 members and I have made a lot of new friends and learned a lot about governance from the inside. I hope I’m making a positive difference in all of these things that I’m doing.
For more information about the show, visit 2st.com/shows/letters-of-suresh
Follow Kellie on Instagram @willafly