Sterling Kee: A Passion for People, Onstage and Off
Sterling Kee has blossomed at Amherst as both a dynamic performer and an attentive friend, well-known for his thoughtfulness and quiet power.
The Friedmann Room stage lights were shining bright as the voice of Luke Herzog ’24 rang through the room: “Let’s consult our resident philosopher with a rich internal life,” he said, “Sterling Kee!” Another voice responded: “You rang?” The voice did not belong to Sterling Kee ’23 himself, however, but to his friend and Mr. Gad’s House of Improv costar, Deb Thayer ’24, who was walking onto the stage.
It was Monday night, and Deb was portraying Sterling in the Gads senior show — Sterling’s last performance on that hallowed stage. As is tradition, the show opened with a skit, which, in equal parts, honored and roasted that year’s Gad-udates.
“We have a deep question for you, Sterl,” Luke said, to which Deb-as-Sterling replied, “I love questions of depth. What is your purpose in life? How do you think your friends reflect who you are? What is your definition of success? Tell me about your mother.”
Later in the skit, Deb-as-Sterling went on a rampage through the audience, shouting personal details about random audience members, saying to one of them, “Wait. I actually don’t know you. Want to get lunch sometime? [Deb-Sterling mimed checking their calendar.] How’s Friday at 12:30?”
The real Sterling, meanwhile, watched in the audience. Then, he walked onstage for his real last Gad’s performance, portraying fantastical characters, like a seductive shampoo bottle. With the rest of the audience, I watched in awe, as I have countless times before, as Sterling commanded the stage with his quick and vibrant humor. His performance was greeted by laughter and raucous applause.
The Gad’s senior show was part of a suite of final performances for Sterling, each of which I was lucky enough to witness: his final show with Route 9, his final vocal recital in Arms Music Center, his final performance with the Taurus jazz combo, his final song on the Valcony for Music at Val, and most importantly, his final thesis for the theater department, a performance of the musical “Myths and Hymns.” This series of performances made up but a small fraction of the countless times that Sterling has shared his artistic gifts with the campus community.
As a fixture of the Amherst arts scene, Sterling has imbued so many days and nights like that one with melodies, humor, and feeling. He is beloved to the Amherst community for the reasons gently prodded at by the Gad’s skit: his busy involvement on campus, his care for people and their lives, his passion for reflection and “deep conversations” — all qualities that find their way into his art and performances, too.
“I think the people speak for themselves,” Deb said in an interview last week, “Sterling is a crowd favorite for a reason.”
I have been lucky to get to know Sterling both onstage and off. When we had our first one-on-one dinner last fall, Sterling and I ended up sitting in upstairs Val for hours on end as he asked me to tell him my life story, and kept the casual but perfectly insightful questions coming. Each meal thereafter has been no different. When I interviewed him for this profile, sitting in the lounge of Holden Experimental Theater and, later, on the sunny grass of Webster Circle, the transcript of our conversation filled 33 pages — and that was after I took out the parts where Sterling asked questions of me.
Sterling has played many roles at Amherst: student, friend, actor, singer, comedian, musician, dancer, Association of Amherst Students senator, Judiciary Council Chair, social media coordinator, club member, community advisor (CA), teaching assistant (TA), research assistant — the list goes on. In his own words, from a bio written in 2020: “Does that make sense from a time management perspective? No, it does not.” Sterling’s thoughtfulness and excitement for getting to know people fuels each of these roles.
Chair of Theater and Dance Ron Bashford, Sterling’s advisor, may have said it best in a recent email to me: “Sterling [is] a super-talented student who gets along with everyone — and also for whom ‘still waters run deep.’”
From Maryland to Amherst
Sterling was born and raised in Bowie, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. While he always lived in Bowie, Sterling attended Sidwell Friends School in D.C. from third grade onward, so he considers himself “allowed to say” that he is from D.C.
As a child, Sterling was quiet and observant, and loved to read books like “Percy Jackson” and “Warrior Cats.” While He didn’t participate in any performances until later in his schooling, he was always “interested in the idea of performing.” He would “see the kids on ‘Jessie’ and be like, ‘That seems so fun, I want to be on the TV.’” Though he asked his parents to take him to casting calls, “it never actually happened.”
In high school, Sterling was highly involved in his school community, attending club meetings during every single lunch period, and serving on multiple committees. His attention was largely focused on political activities, both inside and outside Sidwell. “In high school,” he said, “I was way more involved in trying to change the school, which I felt was a little racially violent and a little bigoted.” These issues “definitely weighed” on his overall high school experience, he said.
Sterling chose to attend Amherst because of its small size, open curriculum, “close-but-not-too-close” location to home, and because he “really like[s] purple.” He entered Amherst excited to explore an environment other than the school he had attended for 10 years. “I think I needed more change to be happening,” he said. “I needed to understand how I fit into different contexts.”
Sterling immediately became involved in the Amherst community upon his arrival, serving as an Amherst Association of Students (AAS) Senator and then the Chair of the Judiciary Council. His attentions also turned more to artistic extracurriculars. Sterling had performed a little bit in high school, appearing in theater productions when he could, and performing in an annual BSU showcase. But he came to Amherst hungry for more.
He joined Route 9 in his first few weeks, acted in his first Amherst production — “Medea” for Maki Ybarra-Young ’20’s senior thesis — and took his first acting class. Through the class, “I understood what it was that acting was trying to accomplish,” he recalled. “That just showed me … the gap … between where I was, and what was possible.” He began to consider majoring in theater.
While he discovered his passion for acting, he continued to take a range of classes, including ones in art, English, and computer science. Most of the classes he’s taken, he said, can be united under the idea that “they’re thinking about people, and about narrative.”
Sterling left the AAS in his sophomore spring, after he was accepted into Gad’s, Amherst’s improv comedy group. Gad’s rehearsals conflicted with AAS meetings, “and that was it,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I would rather do this than that.’”
Sterling’s academic and extracurricular interests authentically and naturally developed together. As his participation in on-campus arts grew, so did his commitment to his artistic coursework. “I think it’s harmonious, because that’s what I’d like to do outside of Amherst,” Sterling said. “I think I’m doing things that I just like to do.”
Performer and Artist
When I asked Sterling about what art means to him, and if he thinks of himself as an artist, he wavered slightly. He doesn’t have a clear definition of art (do any of us?) and he sometimes worries that his artistic process is not intentional enough. “I think I’ve had moments where I realized that I’m less of an artist than I want to be,” he said. “Where I feel like more of a performer than an artist.” Photography, though, he said, is a medium within which he feels he’s truly creating art.
In November, Sterling photographed me inside the elevator of Morris Pratt Dormitory for his photography class project. For 15 minutes, Sterling directed me to pose in different ways, to stand on the bars of the elevator, and jump up and down. There was no fancy preparation; throughout the process, Sterling was quiet and casual. The results, however, were remarkable. Each of Sterling’s subjects was framed perfectly in the seemingly mundane environment of the elevator. From my perspective, the elevator project is no different than the rest of Sterling’s artistic endeavors: His thoughtfulness shines through even when he thinks he hasn’t meant it to.
Sterling talked to me about how he feels that his creative process has grown and changed across his time here. “I feel like, unfortunately, for a while, my acting wasn’t the most creative,” he reflected. “I was trying to get the right answer … just what I thought was best, not necessarily what I thought was interesting, or cool.”
“Especially this year, [Sterling] has really connected to his passion for acting,” Bashford (Sterling’s thesis advisor) wrote to me. “He has grown so much as an actor and a person — he is more spontaneous, more willing to take creative risks, and more expressive overall. He made major strides in his singing and ability to act while singing.”
All of this growth manifested in Sterling’s ambitious thesis: a production of “Myths and Hymns” by Adam Guettel. “Myths and Hymns,” is more of a “song-cycle” than a musical, Bashford, Sterling’s advisor, told me. And it is written for “an ensemble of singer-actors … without any dialogue or specific characters.”
Sterling chose the production because he felt that there was a lack of musical theater opportunities on campus, and he liked the adaptability of “Myths and Hymns.” Bashford directed the production, and Sterling served as its leader and one of its stars. Alongside a group of other student performers, Sterling lit up the Holden Theater stage with insightful, poised acting and powerful singing. The production was a wild success, selling out the theater for three nights in a row — an experience that Sterling described as “really cool … and also a little scary.”
“In his journey as an artist, Sterling learned how to really make his work his own, and connect to his acting in a more personal and dynamic way,” Bashford wrote. “I’m really proud of him.”
I think that what makes Sterling a great actor — let alone so funny — is the same thing that makes him such a great friend: his genuine interest in people. As evidenced by his depiction as a stereotypical philosopher in the Gads skit, Sterling is known for his hard-hitting questions, offered with care and power.
“Sterling is the question-asker for sure,” Deb said. “Sterling will pick your brain about anything because he’s just generally interested in people and what they have to say and what they think. And it’s really fun to watch somebody say something, and then watch his brain light up.”
Though on-stage Sterling is a vivacious leading man, his interpersonal power is more subtle and reserved. Sterling recounted how much more outgoing he’s become during Amherst versus in high school, when he had “way more defenses.” This growth only heightened after being isolated off-campus due to Covid-19. Reflecting on his return, Sterling said, “as much as I was interested in people before the pandemic, I liked people way more after.”
Sterling reflected that that shift is reflected onstage. “I was even more reserved, interpersonally and even more reserved in performance contexts,” he said, “And now I’m less in both.”
Sterling’s care for people is partly why he has served as a CA. “I love meeting people that I otherwise wouldn’t, because we live together,” Sterling said. “And I like holding events for my floor, to facilitate people meeting other people.”
This is also exactly what he likes about Amherst: “how easy it is to meet people, and know people.” He advised future and current students to take advantage of this — to look for what they have in common with any person, to “say hi to people you know when you see them,” and to “make the small talk … [and] be curious about people.”
Sterling has engaged in a variety of other endeavors throughout his time here, accumulating more stories than I have the space to tell — for one, he studied photography in Barcelona in summer of 2022 and living with a host family. He has also spent summers working as an art magazine editor and proofreading scripts for a play. He has worked odd jobs, taken many classes, and spent countless meals in Val conversing with friends, old and new.
After he graduates, Sterling plans to continue pursuing what he enjoys most: acting. He will spend this summer working as an assistant director at a theater summer camp in upstate New York. Then, he plans on moving to New York City to pursue acting professionally. “I’m imagining and maybe naively hoping that, should I keep doing things that I like to do, like be a camp counselor with a bunch of theater kids, more similar opportunities will open themselves up to me,” Sterling said.
While many people will feel Sterling’s absence most acutely when they go to a Gad’s or Route 9 show, or are casting for their next theater production, our campus will more broadly miss his curiosity and caring energy. Sterling is someone who is, in his friends’ words, “thoughtful, hilarious, charismatic, beautiful, exceptional, talented, and insightful.”
“I’m never bored of talking to Sterling,” Deb said, “so I’ll miss that.”
As for what Sterling will miss, he referenced a few specific routines: Sunday morning Tandem bagels in Val. Pre-show rituals with Route 9. Hangouts with his fellow Gad’s after Monday night shows.
But most of all, he said, “I will miss just walking 100 feet in any direction during peak times, and saying hi to, like, one person per foot. That’s very lovely and classic Amherst, and not the real world.”