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Nambi E. Kelley

Nambi E. Kelley’s flair for crafting complex characters and writing poetic dialogue has made her an in-demand voice for theaters seeking new works.

Manuel Martinez

Meet Nambi E. Kelley, one of Chicago’s most in-demand playwrights

It’s curtain call on opening night of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Goodman Theatre, and the audience is on its feet. The performers are basking in the ovation. As the rest of her fellow actors smile down on the crowd, Nambi E. Kelley is visibly crying.

Her tears of joy are the product of a full circle moment. She recalls, as a student at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, attending a performance of that very same play, starring her aunt. Fast forward 33 years and her aunt is there, watching Kelley portray Mattie Campbell from the audience.

“All of the important people in my life were there,” Kelley recalls a few days later. “I was thinking about myself as a little girl and the dreams I had. To have that moment was overwhelming.”

This spring, the actor and playwright is bringing a triple-play to Chicago stages. She’s acting in Joe Turner at the Goodman downtown (through May 19) and producing two of her written works on other stages: her play Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution will have its world premiere at Court Theatre in Hyde Park (opening May 24) and up north, Lifeline Theatre will produce her adaptation of the classic Richard Wright novel Native Son (opening May 10).

Nambi E. Kelley in Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Nambi E. Kelley, pictured left, is currently acting in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ at the Goodman Theatre.

Kelley’s flair for crafting complex characters and writing poetic dialogue has made her an in-demand voice for theaters seeking new works — and it’s the type of creativity that makes Chicago one of the most compelling theater cities in the country. Her influence today still almost surprises her; at times she refers to herself as the little girl from the South Side who was never supposed to be here — a sought-after writer whose television credits include The Chi and the Bel-Air reboot. She worked as an actor on Chicago Med.

But that’s where her study of the complexity of human nature starts. She credits her ability to create intricate characters to her homelife in Chicago and to books like Native Son.

Kelley spent part of her childhood across the street from the Ida B. Wells Homes on the South Side.

It was her mother who, unintentionally, made her a dramatist.

“My mother was schizophrenic,” Kelley said, thinking back to her childhood. “When I was a little girl, she set fire to the house while I was in it. One of my earliest memories is being in that fire.”

Kelley thought these were dreams, but her father later told her these events happened.

She grew up listening to her mother talk to the walls in the house, and, as a sharp young girl, she would imagine who might be speaking back. “But what made me a dramatist, and this is God, is that my brain went, ‘Who’s on the other side of the wall?’ ”

Even early on, she said, “I was interested in character. And listening to her talking to the wall, it sounded like poetry to me. So, my voice as a writer is very poetic. And it’s not even intentional.”

In high school at Von Steuben, drama teacher Ellen O’Keefe remembers being stunned the first time she saw the precocious teen audition for a play.

“She did a monologue, and I was so moved by it,” O’Keefe recalled. “I tried to look it up. I went to all these sources trying to find it, but I couldn’t find it. And the next day at the callbacks, I said, ‘What audition piece was that because I really loved it.’ ”

The girl, it turns out, had written her own monologue. O’Keefe said she took the young Kelley by the shoulders and told her, “You must write.”

At that time, the drama program operated on a $35 budget, so O’Keefe would often produce shows written by the students. In one show, Stories of my Family, the script was based on student interviews about their families.

“Nambi did a piece about her mother that was just exquisite,” O’Keefe said. “It was called My Mama Can Dance. And at the time, her mom was going through some health problems. So it was a real act of a daughter’s love to write this piece for her mom, acknowledging her as an artist and as an intellectual.”

Nambi E. Kelley

Years before being cast in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ Kelley shared her play with August Wilson.

A young playwright meets a legend

A week before opening night of Joe Turner, Kelley is sitting at a rehearsal break eating a salmon filet and spinach salad that has been ordered for her. She’s just finished a scene in which a character named Bynum, a conjureman, is telling another character about the importance of finding your song. It was this scene that captivated a teenage Kelley.

“I remember this so clearly,” Kelley reminisced. “The actor got up and he started saying that monologue, and it took everything in me not to leap out of my seat. I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do with my life.’ It was screaming in my head. I was just so excited.”

That monologue was written by legendary playwright August Wilson, the author of 10 plays that have become the celebrated American Century Cycle. Meeting Wilson would become a seminal moment in Kelley’s path to the stage.

O’Keefe, who had arranged for Kelley and her Von Steuben drama class to see the play, also connected the budding young writer to Richard Pettengill, who at the time was the dramaturg and education program director for the Goodman. Pettengill in turn was impressed by Kelley and arranged for the young writer to meet one of the great 20th-century voices in American theater.

At Sonny’s Deli, in the Art Institute downtown, Kelley met Wilson for the first time. She told him about a play she was writing called MiLK. It was about a child growing up in Chicago across from the housing projects who is part girl, part clown. Wilson agreed to read an early version of the script.

Looking back, Kelley jokes that MiLK “wasn’t great.” But even back then, she was crafting exceptionally complex characters. In MiLK, her central character, a young poet named Baby, is raped, and the traumatic event causes the girl’s soul to leave her body. The soul becomes its own character: a shadow-clown representing the disconnect Baby feels from herself.

The play would go on to be staged at the former Victory Gardens studio space. It was Kelley’s first professional production.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

TayLar, left, and Nambi E. Kelley, right, in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.’

Life comes full circle

Nineteen years later, back in the lobby at the Goodman, Kelley is wearing a portion of her Joe Turner costume — a corset — underneath a robe and talking about juggling multiple productions.

“It’s exhausting. But I’m also enjoying it,” said Kelley, referring to her recent battery of 12-hour days.

In Stokely, opening May 24, Kelley takes a swing at another complex character. This time it’s a historical figure: Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), a central figure in the Civil Rights era who played an integral role in developing the Black Power movement.

Anthony Irons plays the lead role in Stokely, and as an understudy in Joe Turner, he’s also juggling multiple productions. What strikes him about Kelley’s writing, he says, is the poetry of her language and an approach that goes beyond speeches and published facts to capture her central character’s humanity.

Then there’s Bigger Thomas, her central character in Native Son. When the show opens May 10 at Lifeline Theatre, it will mark the 10th anniversary of Kelley’s adaptation (originally premiered at Court Theatre).

For Kelley, who now lives in New York but commutes back to Chicago for projects, this reproduction of Native Son is another full circle moment.

“When I look at it on a page, I don’t remember writing any of it,” Kelley said. “But I remember being very broke. I probably had $400 to my name. It was a gamble. But it paid off.”

Native Son was well received by audiences and critics, who called it “gutsy, powerful and relentless,” and its success put Kelley on the map as a force in playwriting. Native Son opens the day after Joe Turner closes. Kelley plans to be in the audience that night.

It’s been a hectic time; the 12-hour days are becoming 18-hour days and she’s still fine-tuning drafts of Stokely. But she takes a minute to reflect on her tears of joy on Joe Turner’s opening night and on the feeling of having her family, friends and former teachers all there to share in the celebration.

But missing that night were her parents, who have both died. Kelley thought in that moment of her mother, who herself dreamed of being a writer.

“Every morning that I wake up, and I’m living my dream, my mom beat those voices. And that’s never lost on me.”

Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

Updated: This story was updated to reflect that Kelley is an actor on Chicago Med and that she spent part of her childhood across from the Ida B. Wells homes.

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