Joaquina Kalukango Isn’t Afraid to Speak Up Anymore

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When Joaquina Kalukango was done with “Slave Play,” she was done with “Slave Play.”

After four months in 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 role-playing as an enslaved person and an overseer. Eight times a week, she inhabited a character who contends with psychological, sexual, generational and physical trauma, all in a two-hour span.

“How do you do that without your soul falling apart?” Kalukango said in a recent interview. “You have to figure that out.”

So she made a clean break, ceasing all psychoanalysis of Kaneisha and taking onscreen parts, including as Betty Shabazz in “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, large-ensemble musical, “Paradise Square.” She plays Nelly O’Brien, a woman whose father escaped slavery and who now runs a bar in the Five Points neighborhood of Civil War-era Manhattan; her tight-knit community of Black Americans and Irish immigrants unravels 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 starts previews at the Barrymore Theater on March 15 after a five-week run in Chicago in the fall, is Kalukango’s first top billing in a Broadway musical.

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

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

But this new chapter is about much more than how the industry perceives Kalukango, whose performance as Kaneisha earned her a Tony nomination and a reputation for a magnetic star quality, as the director of “Paradise Square,” Moisés Kaufman, put it.

“It’s about owning my power, trusting who I am, trusting that 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 that you can do this.”)

Until recently, Kalukango, 33, would have described herself as a reserved listener, an actress who tended to defer to the authority in the room. In the past, if she had a qualm in a rehearsal about a character or a scene, she would let it be, then end up feeling awkward and foolish onstage. It wasn’t until she saw other Black actresses speaking up in rehearsals — such as Tonya Pinkins in “Hurt Village” — that she began to start building the confidence to do the same. Then came age, experience and a pandemic that filled her with a sense of urgency.

“Once that pandemic hit, it was like, this is life or death, people,” she said. “You can’t sit up here and be in a shell anymore. You have to take ownership of your craft, ownership of your art, ownership of 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 civil war. Her three siblings were all much older; she remembers being too young to participate in the animated conversations about politics at the dinner table — one place where she grew accustomed to observing from the background.

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

That trajectory led her to Juilliard, where Brooks and Kalukango remember the frustrations of being the only Black women in their acting classes, with few Black instructors. They were frequently mistaken for each other at auditions, Brooks remembered, and Kalukango felt some instructors did not have the faculties to advise her on how to incorporate her race and background into her characters.

“Some teachers weren’t able to communicate what it meant for 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 is my color completely gone from this — my culture gone from this?”

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

After college, Kalukango had a brief stint as a swing in the 2011 Off Broadway revival of “Rent,” then had her Broadway debut as an understudy in “Godspell.” She went on to join the ensemble in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by Tupac Shakur’s music, then took on larger parts as the rival to Sutton Foster’s character in “The Wild Party” and as Nettie, the sister to Cynthia Erivo’s Celie, in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.”

She became pregnant during the run of “The Color Purple,” staying with the production until a month before she was due. Onstage, she learned to throw herself to the ground in a doctor-approved way, and backstage she wore a surgical mask to protect herself and the baby from viruses. When her son was born, she thought to herself, “I can’t hold back anymore. This 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 died, traveling with her son and her mother for jobs, including to Chicago for “Paradise Square” and now to New York for its Broadway opening.

Kalukango’s character wasn’t always the lead; in earlier scripts, Nelly was one figure in an assemblage of Five Points inhabitants, including a formerly enslaved man escaping to Canada and an immigrant who just stepped off the boat from Ireland. The show itself has been in development for nine years. In 2013, Garth Drabinsky, the lead producer, first heard music from “Hard Times” — ​​a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of the Celtic rock band Black 47, which largely revolved around the songs of the 19th-century American songwriter Stephen Foster, who spent time in Five Points toward the end of his life.

Drabinsky saw the choreographic potential, the multilayered socioeconomic dynamics of the neighborhood and the sense that the story was not particularly well known to audiences.

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

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

“What became clear is that you need to know who you are rooting for and who you’re hopeful about,” said Jason Howland, the show’s composer and music supervisor. “Ultimately, that’s Joaquina’s character.”

Nelly’s presence in the show grew even larger after the production in Chicago, where audiences reliably gave a standing ovation when Kalukango sang “Let It Burn,” a climax in the second act in which she unleashes her powerful voice, said Masi Asare, who wrote the show’s lyrics with Nathan Tysen.

“Every time she comes onstage she energizes the whole thing,” Asare said.

“Paradise Square” bursts with action and movement — from the rough-and-tumble of Nelly’s bar, to the scenes of violent protest as Irish immigrants mobilize against the draft, to lively ensemble dance numbers that blend Irish step dancing with Juba and the beginnings of tap (the choreography is by Bill T. Jones). In between the action, there are the quieter scenes of sinister politicking as an uptown party boss seeks to undercut Nelly’s influence in her 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 history helped her shed her reserve in the rehearsal room and assert herself when she was moved to, she said.

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

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

After she raised that concern to Kaufman, the stage directions were changed to make the conversation more discreet.

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

“She told us ‘no’ is a full sentence,” Kalukango said. “I think that was revelatory for so many of us.”

She had trained for over a decade in an industry where teachers explained how to walk, talk and even how to breathe. There was a sense that, as actors, they were just lucky to have a job — so the answer should always be “yes.”

“Actors, I feel like, in recent times, have a real ownership,” she went on. “We’re the ones onstage doing this eight times a week. And nobody knows your character better than you.”

Although Kalukango tries not to think 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 ways, grappling with affects of centuries of racism on their lives.

And yet the characters’ psychologies are sharply different. In a turn of irony, Kaneisha, a famous writer who lives in the present day, is “still mentally enslaved and is bonded by her history,” Kalukango said. And Nelly, who was disenfranchised and lived in a time of slavery, somehow manages to make her spirit free.

“She feels limitless to me,” she said.

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