As part of our mission to highlight women and the underrepresented, TNEP is thrilled to begin our Spotlight Series with the uber talented, humble and driven actress and playwright, Nambi E. Kelley! TNEP chats with Nambi about her journey as an artist & storyteller and her beliefs about the representation of women in theater. Check her out!
TNEP: What inspired you to pursue a career in theatre as an actress and writer?
NAMBI: I come from very humble beginnings, raised on the south side of Chicago across from the infamous, now defunct, Chicago housing projects known as Ida B. Wells. While enduring these circumstances, I was introduced to the live theatre, a production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson at the Gooodman Theatre. While watching that production with my high school class, my imagination would be forever altered and on fire for live theatre. I discovered what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My passion has remained staunch since that very day. Despite the environment and circumstances that would have thwarted most young people in the Chicago Public School system, I miraculously survived. Literally, the theatre saved me.
TNEP: What types of characters do you love to play? Is there any correlation between the characters you create when you write and the characters you’d love to take on in a play?
NAMBI: As an actress, I am drawn to new plays, particularly new plays that integrate movement, music, image, and the written word. As a playwright, my writing tends to be incredibly poetic, juxtaposing image and sound within the language. It is my greatest joy to be able to bring my multi-disciplinarian expertise to the rehearsal room and performance, and these two disciplines feed each other. As an actress and writer, I am drawn to characters with dimensionality, history, a sense of purpose, and a deep understanding of their place in humanity.
TNEP: As a woman of color, do you feel a sense of responsibility to bring the Black female voice to the stage? How so?
NAMBI: While performing and living in Asia and Africa for nearly 2 years, I learned a very important lesson: that I am a citizen of the world. I nurture that vision of myself daily by continuing to practice, expand, and share my performing and playwriting art with an internationally expansive focus. Through my art practice, my singular goal is to impart my lesson of world citizenship and how we have an obligation to understand that our humanity is the most powerful unifying force. This lesson has infused my work in a way that is palpable. It is quite exciting for me to see my work expanding from being African-American centered to exploring and integrating visions and stories from all over the world.
TNEP: What female artists are you inspired by and why?
NAMBI: As a playwright, my writing juxtaposes image and present history within theatricalized language. I credit artists like my mother Carol Kelley for introducing me to poetry, image, and politics. On her bookshelves I fell in love with Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde. These writers lead me to discover myself.
TNEP: What is your take on the state of women in theatre? There has been a lot of awareness brought to the need for female playwrights and stories about women being depicted on stage. Do you feel there is a lack of representation when it comes to female playwrights and actors getting exposure or work? What has been your experience as a woman of color as both a writer and an actress?
NAMBI: I believe there is more representation of women in theatre than ever before. My personal experience is that for my entire career I have been blessed with roles that are challenging, three dimensional, and important in the canon of plays about women. Is there work to do? Absolutely! Have we moved forward in spite of the miles we still need to go? Absolutely! I believe in focusing on the world you want to see rather than harping on the ills and wrongs of how things are. Focus on the world you want to see, and by your focusing there, you will create it. If we can focus our collective energy on equalizing the representation of all peoples, regardless of race/gender/creed, we can create a world where we are all represented, and celebrate in each other. That is where my focus is.
TNEP: When it comes to stories about women, is there anything you are craving to see that is different from what has been portrayed in the past on stage?
NAMBI: I crave to see more plays about leading ladies who are older than 25!!! I have a play I’ve penned called FOR HER AS A PIANO, which I’ve written for that very purpose, to add to the canon of plays that exist for women that are of a certain age that provides challenging roles for women.
TNEP: What are you currently working on? What should we keep an eye out for and support?
NAMBI: I was blessed to be commissioned to adapt Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON which is opening at the Court Theatre in Chicago in September 2014. My play XTIGONE will open in February 2015 at the African American Shakespeare Co in San Francisco, and my play FOR HER AS A PIANO will open in Chicago in May 2015. I am also working on a few commissions for other theaters and will be performing at the Goodman Theatre in March 2015 as Risa in a production of August Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING. Blessed to be doing what I love! And looking for more opportunities to share my art with the world.