Ali Ahn of 'Letters of Suresh' on monologuing her way into audiences' hearts
When the casting notice came out that Letters of Suresh, the new play from Rajiv Joseph being produced at Second Stage Theater, actor Ali Ahn texted every Asian American actor friend she knew working in New York City. It was because the show had two prominent East Asian roles and one Indian role. “It's very rare to have a story that centers around an Asian American character’s growth,” said Ahn.
Ahn ended up getting a role, and her character now opens the new play Letters of Suresh, currently running at Second Stage Theater through October 24. The show contains four seemingly disparate characters whose only connection to each other are through letters, and the personal revelations they have not just about each other, but also about themselves through those letters. Rajiv considers Letters of Suresh a companion piece to his hit play Animals Out of Paper.
Ahn is a working actor, having had regular television roles in Orange Is the New Black and Billions. Her theatre credits include The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway and The Great Leap at Atlantic Theater Company.
Ahn admits that she’s rarely gotten as meaty of a role as Melody, a young woman going through something of a career crisis. She starts writing letters to Suresh, who she’s never met, in order to get some kind of clarity on her own life.
“To have a female character whose creative angst is the primary concern is very rare,” said Ahn. “That's usually a quandary left for male characters, their artistic development. And to see a woman doing that — and not in the context of motherhood, and also that she's Asian American — is really different.” She then added, “Any opportunity to be in a Rajiv Joseph plan I'm gonna take.”
Below, Ahn talks about how Letters of Suresh, which was in the works even before the Covid-19 pandemic, has become more poignant and moving now.
How does it feel to be back in a theatre after this long industry pause?
Surreal. Definitely the first few shows, it didn't feel like it was happening. It feels like a weird time warp. It just feels like everyone who's in the audience really wants to be there. That's really nice. It's nice to perform to people who are so appreciative of the luxury that it is to be in a group and enjoying a story.
You open the play with a monologue that lasts, it seems like, 10 or 15 minutes. How do you prepare for that as an actor?
My character sets up the vocabulary of the play: What is this play? What are the rules? It's definitely scary. It's probably the most scared I've been in my professional life, like, how am I going to do this? And I also know, these are rare opportunities — most actors feel like we get these boxes that we are put in and then we just get frustrated by them. So when you have an opportunity to do something that actually challenges you, it would be a shame to run away from that challenge. So you kind of have to lean into the fear a little bit.
The characters in Letters of Suresh are trying to make a deeper connection with another person. Is that what you’re trying to do when you’re directly addressing the audience and trying to bring them into the play?
You are trying to connect, you really are. And you do feel this literal gulf of like the fourth wall. But when you're doing direct address, the challenge is to not try to add too much, like, actor trickery. You want to try to be as naked and as simple as possible. For my character, she doesn't think her letters are being received, so it's more like a journal entry, kind of an imaginary friend. And because of the imaginary nature, I think she has to extend herself and bear herself in a way that she might not if it was a real person. And so for me, it was really just about, like, how truthful and naked can I be? As though the person I'm trying to reach truly has no judgment of me. So it is trusting that the audience is not going to hate me. [chuckles]
What has this play taught you about connecting with other people?
I think about this line that another character, Amelia, says: “The things that you don't say, they're valuable. And the reason why we don't say them is because they matter. And so you should share those things.” And I think about that: A lot of the things that are left unsaid. And to not live with regret. I think that it’s really scary to be honest. Your desire to connect to people, I think most people don't reach out just simply because they don't want to be rejected.
This play is a kind of a meditation on taking a leap of faith and extending yourself. So many of these characters are afraid to, because they don't do that. They're stuck. So the thing that I'm trying to take away from it is to sort of lean into the thing that scares me and always err on trying to connect rather than being afraid of what might happen.
I’m sure, especially after the pandemic.
I honestly think that helped me in my process with this play. It was, of course, scary and challenging to think, oh my God, I’m opening a play with a bunch of monologues. But after the pandemic, you just get perspective to realize, what are really the stakes here? What is really so scary? We've just been through an existential crisis as a species. This [play] is something that I can do safely. I should push forward.
Photo credit: Ali Ahn (Photo courtesy of Second Stage Theater)