LabWorks Artist Spotlight: Nambi E. Kelley

New Victory LabWorks was originally established in 2012, as a program seeking New York City based artists that were interested in creating boundary-breaking theater for young audiences. This year, and in future years, the program is and will specifically support New York artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in the creation of original work for kids and family audiences.

This season (2020-21), each New Victory LabWorks Artist receives a $15,000 stipend, as well as dramaturgical and community support from New Victory’s local and international network of professional artists, educators, presenters and producers.

New Victory LabWorks supports a variety of artists across performing arts disciplines. Without the expectation of a finished product at the end of development, participation in New Victory LabWorks is tailored to each artist’s creative process.

Q&A with LabWorks Artist Nambi E. Kelley

New 42 staff member Laura Been, Senior Manager of Artistic Programming, sat down with some of our current LabWorks Artists for a very special Q&A series to discuss how the artists’ childhoods have influenced their current-day artistic processes. First up—Nambi E. Kelley!

Laura Been: When you were a young kid, what inspired you to create art?

Nambi E. Kelley: When I was a young kid, my family was living across from housing projects in Chicago. I saw and endured things that no child should. My brothers are older than me and I was often left to my own devices to make sense of the world. It was then I started to draw, write poems, make up stories with my dolls.

L: Do you remember a specific theater piece or project you worked on when you were younger that you were particularly proud of?

N: When I was in second grade, I wrote a poem about spring and performed it in a contest for an assembly. I did not win the contest, but I remember being very proud of the fact that I had written something and had the courage to stand on stage and read it before a group of people.

Nambi E. Kelley with Granny Helena Brooks
“In this picture, I am in second grade on my way with my Granny Helena Brooks to my oldest brother’s graduation from eighth grade, in Chicago. I loved that little outfit! It was the first time I’d ever worn it. My mother bought it for the graduation.”

L: What are the influences in your childhood that affect the art you create today as an adult?

N: When I create art today as an adult, I often think back to the little girl I was growing up in a bad neighborhood and am floored that I made it out. Very aware that everything was against me being here, I create with a sense of gratitude.

L: Where was home for you growing up? Where is home for you now?

N: I was born in Harlem. I was raised in Chicago. I now live again in Harlem, only a few blocks from the hospital I was born in!

Nambi E. Kelley at 2 years old
“I am about two years old here in Morningside Park in New York. Most likely I was with my brothers and my daddy at the park.”

L: Could you give a brief description of what you’re currently working on in LabWorks?

N: I am writing a play with music about Congressman John Lewis when he was a boy. When he was a boy he wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and got a meeting with him. I’ve written a play dramatizing that moment, where a young John Lewis is still trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

L: If you could travel back in time and tell your younger kid-self that one day you would be part of the New Victory LabWorks program, what would you say and how would you describe the program?

N: If I could travel back in time and tell my younger kid-self about LabWorks, I would say that it is a really fun program where I get to meet great people making great art, and get all the support I could ever imagine to make the art I want to make to serve young people.

Want to see Nambi and our other New Victory LabWorks Artists at work? Come visit them at Little Island this summer! For the park’s inaugural season, New Victory will provide family-friendly performing arts experiences and interactive engagement opportunities, including an exclusive series of New Victory LabWorks Open Rehearsals on select Sundays. Learn more about New Victory at Little Island!

Nambi E. Kelley

Nambi E. Kelley is an award-winning playwright chosen by literary legend Toni Morrison to adapt her novel Jazz for the stage (Baltimore Center Stage, Marin Theatre Company). Her adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son has played across the country and premiered off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street (The Acting Company). Nambi is a former playwright-in-residence at the National Black Theatre, Goodman Theatre and New Victory Theater. Awards include this year’s NNPN annual commission, the Prince Prize 2019 and a Dramatists Guild Foundation Writers Alliance Grant 2018-19. Nambi is a staff writer for a new show on Fox and for Showtime’s The Chi.