(Originally printed in The New York Times, 2/25; via Update News World and Pam Green; Photo: The New York Times.)
When Joaquina Kalukango was Done with “Slave Play,” she was done with “Slave Play.”
Kalukango, a Black woman desperate to find sexual fulfillment with her white husband, had to put an end to her four-month-long tenure on the show. She played the roles of an overseer and an slave. She played a character that dealt with sexual, generational, psychological and physical trauma eight times a week for a total of two hours.
“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.”)
Kalukango, 33 years old, described herself as a reserved listener and an actress who tended not to question the authority in the room. Kalukango used to have a problem with a scene or character in rehearsals. She would then feel awkward and foolish on stage. 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. Her experience, age and a pandemic gave her a sense for 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, the youngest of three children born to Angolan parents after fleeing civil war, was born in Atlanta. 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.
This led her to Juilliard. Brooks and Kalukango recall the frustrations of being the only Black women enrolled in acting classes with very few Black instructors. Brooks recalled that they were often mistaken for one another at auditions. Kalukango felt that not all instructors had the faculties to help her 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.”