Nambi E. Kelley playwright and actor

Nambi E. Kelley: Myth and Serendipity

by Melda Beaty

James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, sang "I was born in New York City on a Monday," in his hit song, "Down and Out in New York City." Carol and Don Kelley gave birth to their baby girl Nambi Evelyn Kelley on a Monday in New York City. Her father insisted that his only daughter know that she was born in New York City on a Monday. So, today, whenever you ask Kelley where she was born, her proud response rolls off her tongue like the intro drums to the song, "I was born in New York City on a Monday."

Not only is her birthplace significant, but there is significance in her name. As the Ugandan creation story goes, Nambi was a goddess and the daughter of the sky god, Mugulu. Against her father's wishes, Nambi ventured out of her heavenly home to de-scend to Earth, where she developed an amorous relationship with the mortal, Kintu. Despite her father's reservations, Nambi was determined to marry Kintu; however, before he could take her hand in marriage, he had to pass all Mugulu's tests. Kintu was victorious and won his bride, but he also gained the opposition of Nambi's brother, Warumbe, other-wise known as Death. Warumbe hunted Kintu and Nambi's descendants forever. This "mytherstory" positions Kintu as the first man, Nambi as the first woman and their children as humanity. It's no surprise that Don and Carol Kelley, civil rights activists and clearly woke, chose such a befitting name for their baby girl. And true to her name, what Kelley has accomplished in her artistic career as actor and writer is legendary.

I discovered her fascinating origins, and so much more, sitting at her "virtual feet" in her living room in New York City while I was in my home office in Chicago, Illinois. For two hours, we journeyed through her prolific acting and writing career, shaped by our ....(continued)

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Melda Beaty is an assistant English professor at Olive-Harvey College in Chicago and a playwright. Her play, Front Porch Society, had its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre in Houston and a mainstage production at the 2019 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC. She also serves as performance review editor for Contin-uum: The Journal of African Diaspora Drama, Theatre, and Performance. In addition, she is the author of two books, Lime and My Soul to His Spirit: Soulful Expressions from Black Daughters to Their Fathers. Both titles are available on Amazon.


Autumn 2020

This article is featured in
Vol. 26, No. 2

Also in this issue:

  • What George Floyd's Death Teaches the American Theatre

  • Our Ancestors Are Screaming at Us

  • Young, Gifted and Black: The Inaugural Antonyo Awards

  • Black Theatre Coalition: Mobilize, Implement, Transform

  • In Memoriam: Steve Carter, Anthony Chisholm and James V. Hatch

  • Editor's Notes: When They Hear Us

  • Arts Hotline

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    (r. to l.) Nambi E. Kelley as Risa and Chester Gregory as Sterling in August Wilson's, Two Trains Running

    Nambi E. Kelley enjoys a light moment during the rehearsal of her children's play, Jabari Dreams of Freedom