Joaquina Kalukango is no longer afraid to speak

When Joaquina Kalukango finished “Slave Play”, she was ended with “Slave Game”.

After four months on the show, Kalukango had to close the book on her character, Kaneisha, a black woman desperately trying to find sexual satisfaction with her white husband by playing the role of slave and overseer. Eight times a week, she inhabited a character struggling with psychological, sexual, generational and physical trauma, all in two hours.

“How do you do this without your soul collapsing?” Kalukango said in a recent interview. “You have to understand that.”

So she made a clean break, ceasing all psychoanalysis of Kaneisha and taking on screen roles, including as Betty Shabazz on “One Night in Miami.”

Now, after two years away from Broadway as it weathered the pandemic, Kalukango is stepping into a radically different role: as the lead actress in the big-budget, big-set musical, “Paradise Square.” She plays Nelly O’Brien, a woman whose father escaped slavery and now runs a bar in the Five Points neighborhood of Civil War-era Manhattan; its tight-knit community of Black Americans and Irish immigrants crumbled in the days leading up to the 1863 Draft Riots, when white working-class New Yorkers formed violent racist mobs following a draft lottery.

The show, which begins previews at the Barrymore Theater on March 15 after a five-week tour of Chicago in the fall, is Kalukango’s first starring role in a Broadway musical.

“She was taking steps towards this leadership position, and she’s finally there,” said Danielle Brooks, an actress who has been close friends with Kalukango since they studied together at Juilliard.

“I think she’s ready to step into this like Audra did and like LaChanze did,” she added, comparing her to Audra McDonald and the ‘Trouble in Mind’ star. .

But this new chapter is about much more than how the industry views Kalukango, whose performance as Kaneisha earned him a Tony nomination and a reputation as a magnetic star, as the ‘Paradise Square’ director put it. , Moises Kaufman.

“It’s about owning my power, trusting who I am, believing my opinions about my character are valid,” Kalukango said. (Kalukango landed “Paradise Square” without an audition: In an early Zoom meeting with Kaufman, he said, “I don’t need you to read anything. I know you can.”)

Until recently, Kalukango, 33, described herself as a reserved listener, an actress who tended to defer to authority in the room. In the past, if she had a qualm during a rehearsal about a character or a scene, she let it be, and then ended up feeling awkward and silly on stage. It wasn’t until she saw other black actresses speak out in rehearsals — like Tonya Pinkins in “Hurt Village” — that she began to develop the confidence to do the same. Then came age, experience and a pandemic that filled her with a sense of urgency.

“Once this pandemic hit, it was like life or death, people,” she said. “You can no longer sit here and be in a shell. You have to own your craft, own your art, own who you are as a person.

Kalukango was born in Atlanta, the youngest child of Angolan parents who had immigrated to the United States after escaping the Civil War. His three siblings were all much older; she remembers being too young to participate in heated conversations about politics at the dinner table – a place where she grew accustomed to watching from the background.

As a child, Kalukango’s experiences were mostly limited to impersonating Whitney Houston and Aaliyah at home on her family’s karaoke machine. It wasn’t until after a college talent show that a counselor suggested she audition for a performing arts high school.

That trajectory led her to Juilliard, where Brooks and Kalukango recall the frustrations of being the only black women in their acting classes, with few black instructors. They often got confused during auditions, Brooks recalls, and Kalukango felt that some instructors lacked the ability to advise her on how to incorporate her race and background into her characters.

“Some teachers weren’t able to communicate what it meant to me to play a character — to play Hedda Gabler as a black woman,” she recalled. “Could I interpret anything of myself in this character? Or has my color completely disappeared from this – has my culture completely disappeared from this? »

“They weren’t having these conversations,” she continued. “And so I felt invisible.”

After college, Kalukango had a brief stint as a swinger in the 2011 Off Broadway revival of “Rent,” then made her Broadway debut as an understudy in “Godspell.” She then joined the ensemble in “Holler if Ya Hear Me”, a musical inspired by the music of Tupac Shakur, then played a more important role as a rival to Sutton Foster’s character in “The Wild Party” and as Nettie, Cynthia’s sister. Celie d’Erivo, in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.”

She became pregnant while “The Color Purple” aired, staying with the production until a month before she gave birth. Onstage, she learned how to throw herself to the ground in a doctor-approved manner, and backstage, she wore a surgical mask to protect herself and the baby from viruses. When her son was born, she said to herself, “I can’t hold back any longer. It is for him.

After Kalukango found out in 2018 that her father had cancer, she and her son moved back to Atlanta from New Jersey. She decided to stay there after her father’s death, traveling with her son and mother on jobs including Chicago for “Paradise Square” and now New York for its Broadway opening.

Kalukango’s character hasn’t always been the leader; in previous storylines, Nelly was one of the figures of an assemblage of Five Points residents, including a former slave fleeing to Canada and an immigrant who had just gotten off the ship from Ireland. The show itself has been in development for nine years. In 2013, Garth Drabinsky, the lead producer, first heard the music for “Hard Times” – a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of the Celtic rock band Black 47, which largely revolved around the 19th century songs. American songwriter Stephen Foster, who spent time in Five Points towards the end of his life.

Drabinsky saw the choreographic potential, the multi-layered socio-economic dynamics of the neighborhood, and the feeling that history was not particularly well known to the public.

As the producer brought in writers to develop the musical for Broadway, the show moved further and further away from Foster and his music – especially after production fully considered Foster’s contributions to American minstrelsy.

It wasn’t until after the performance of “Paradise Square” at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2019 that the writers identified the show’s heroine as Nelly, who is waiting for her husband, an Irish immigrant fighting in the Civil War, to come home.

“What has become clear is that you have to know who you’re supporting and who you’re hoping for,” said Jason Howland, the show’s composer and music supervisor. “At the end of the day, it’s the character of Joaquina.”

Nelly’s presence in the show was further heightened after the Chicago production, where the audience reliably gave a standing ovation when Kalukango sang “Let It Burn”, a climax in the second act in which she releases his powerful voice, said Masi Asare, who wrote the show’s lyrics with Nathan Tysen.

“Every time she takes the stage, she energizes the whole thing,” Asare said.

“Paradise Square” bursts with action and movement – from the commotion of Nelly’s bar, to scenes of violent protest as Irish immigrants rally against the project, to spirited ensemble dance numbers that mix Irish dancing with Juba and early tap dancing (choreography by Bill T. Jones). In between the action are quieter scenes of grim politics as an uptown party leader seeks to undermine Nelly’s influence in his community and turn Irish residents against abolition.

To prepare, Kalukango read seven books about Five Points and black society in 19th-century New York. Knowing the story helped her shed her reserve in the rehearsal room and assert herself when she was transferred, she said.

In one scene, in which Nelly discovers that another character has a bounty on his head for killing his former master, Kalukango sensed there was something wrong.

“The windows are open, people are walking outside on the street, and we’re literally having a conversation, holding a ‘Wanted’ sign,” Kalukango said. “At any time, if anyone saw this, we would all be arrested or, worse, killed.”

After conveying this concern to Kaufman, the stage directions were changed to make the conversation more low-key.

When she doubts herself, Kalukango often thinks back to the advice she received while doing “Slave Play” — something the intimacy coordinator told the cast during rehearsal.

“She told us ‘no’ is a complete sentence,” Kalukango said. “I think that was eye-opening for a lot of us.”

She had been trained for more than a decade in an industry where teachers explained how to walk, talk and even how to breathe. There was a feeling that, as actors, they were just lucky to have a job – so the answer would always have to be ‘yes’.

“Actors, I feel like I have real ownership lately,” she continued. “were those on stage do so eight times a week. And no one knows your character better than you.

Although Kalukango tries not to think too much about “Slave Play,” she does note some similarities between Kaneisha and Nelly: Both are black women married to white men (one British, the other Irish). Both are, in their own way, grappling with the effects of centuries of racism on their lives.

And yet, the psychology of the characters is very different. Ironically, Kaneisha, a famous writer living in the present day, is “still mentally enslaved and bound by her story,” Kalukango said. And Nelly, who was disenfranchised and lived in a time of slavery, somehow manages to free her spirit.

“She seems limitless to me,” she said.

About Pamela Boon

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