As part of its highly anticipated August Wilson Celebration, commemorating the legacy of the legendary playwright, Goodman Theatre will present one of the jewels of Wilson’s catalogue, the Tony-nominated work Two Trains Running. And at the center of this civil rights drama that explores the tensions at work at the micro level in the African-American community is an unassuming, yet compellingly thoughtful, waitress, Risa, whose emotions fuel much of the drama.

Returning to the Goodman to take on that role is Jeff Award-nominated actress Nambi E. Kelley. With international stage credits, television roles in shows like Elementary and Person of Interest and her own budding playwright career, Kelley brings a world of depth to Wilson’s Risa, and that’s a good thing, too. Because Risa has to communicate a complex tangle of emotions without the aid of expansive dialogue, something only a seasoned actress could possibly hope to pull off.

I had a chance to pose 10 questions to the actress and found, as I think you will, more depth and focus than even Risa commands. Kelley’s process is a layered and multi-dimensional one. And she devotes the entirety of her considerable powers to her work whatever the medium. And because of that, one can only expect a fully matured approach to Wilson’s thought-provoking role this spring.

1) Between an extensive stage career and a growing body of work on the small screen, you've seen both sides of the coin. What are the merits of one versus the other as you see them?

I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist, so my view isn't one versus the other, but more of a "yes, and" approach.  Both take an incredible degree of skill. Both require a community of people very good at what they do to surrender to the process to create a viable product.  Both, at their core, are about storytelling on various scales.  

2) Did the process of developing and maturing the work with live actors impact your own craft at all?

It is my greatest pleasure as an artist to be in a room full of people willing and ready to create together.  The sum of the whole is much greater than the individual parts, and actors are key elements in infusing any work with veracity and life.

3) What would you be doing now if you had not chosen to pursue a career in acting?

My dream as a child was to either be an artist or a psychologist.

4) Back at DePaul University’s Theatre School, where you would study for your BFA, like all other students studying for a career in the arts, I’m sure you were wide-eyed and perhaps maybe even a little naive about the industry. After a celebrated career on stage and screen that’s taken you all over the globe, what would Nambi now tell Nambi then?

I would tell Then Nambi to be unafraid to dream.

5) Who were you biggest inspirations back then?

I was deeply inspired by Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy, George Wolfe, and a lot of Chicago theater, especially work done at Victory Gardens and the Goodman.

6) What was your first profession role on the live stage and what was the experience like?

My first professional role was in McKinley Johnson's Train is Comin’ playing the role of Eliza opposite Two Trains cast member, Chester Gregory.  It was also Chester's first professional show.

7) This spring you’ll take on the role of Risa in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Risa has relatively few lines, but remains one of the most powerful characters in the play, making her one of the most complex characters to portray. How do you tackle this kind of complexity in your approach to the stage?

My approach to Risa starts with learning who she is before I decide to impose any of my ideas on who she should be. First I read the play.  Then I circle any and everything that is said about her, as well as what she says about herself.  I then outline how she feels about the things she says about herself, and I make a decision about whether or not what other characters say about her is true.  All of this happens while I am learning the lines, discovering in rehearsal how she moves, how she connects to other characters.  I then journal about Risa and discover while writing how I, Nambi, am similar to Risa, as well as how I am different.  Lastly, I create a journal for her, written in the first person as Risa, fleshing out everything Risa feels about what is in the play, as well as creating a thorough backstory for everything about her that is not in the play.  Once all this work is done, I then go to rehearsal and do my best to let it all go, and play.

8) What’s your favorite dessert?

Vanilla Caramel Fudge Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with Chocolate Lava Cake a close second.

9) When you’re away from the stage and all-things-theater, what engages your interests most?

When away from the theater, I am mostly engaged by all things natural.  I love animals, trees, wind, and especially the lake.

10) What was it like working with Phylicia Rashad in playwright Ifa Bayeza’s Charleston Olio at theNational Black Theatre Festival?

Phylicia watched me try and try again to shake my shimmy in a particular scene.  Needless to say, I was not succeeding.  She pulled me aside and taught me the mechanics of the movement.  Yes, Phylicia Rashad taught me to shake my shimmy!

You can see Kelley in Goodman Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running in Albert Theater March 7- April 12 this spring.

Actress Nambi E. Kelley returns to the Goodman Theatre stage this spring in the role of Risa in August Wilson's Tony-nominated play, Two Trains Running. The production is part of The Goodman's 2015 August Wilson Celebration, commemorating the work and legacy of the legendary playwright (photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre).

10 Questions for Actress Nambi E. Kelley

From the Spring 2015 Issue of

Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

By Andrew Sheffield