Joaquina Kalukango doesn’t mind saying anything more

When Joaquina Kalukango is made with “Playing Slaves” she has accomplished with “Playing Slaves”.

After four months in the film, Kalukango had to end her book on her character, Kaneisha, a Black woman who tries to find sexual satisfaction with her white husband by playing a slave. rules and a supervisor. Eight times a week, she plays a character dealing with psychological, sexual, generational, and physical trauma, all in the span of two hours.

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

So she took a complete break, stopping any psychological analysis of Kaneisha and taking on on-screen parts, including the role of Betty Shabazz in “One Night in Miami.”

Now, after a two-year absence from Broadway due to the pandemic weather, Kalukango is stepping into an entirely different role: as the lead actress in the big-budget, big-budget 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 Manhattan; Her close-knit community with black Americans and Irish immigrants unraveled in the days leading up to the Long Riots of 1863, when white working-class New Yorkers the establishment of violent racist mobs after a draft lottery.

The performance, which began previewing at the Barrymore Theater on March 15 after five weeks of its premiere in Chicago in the fall, was the highest-paid Kalukango first in a Broadway musical.

Danielle Brooks, an actress who has been close with Kalukango since they both attended Juilliard said: “She’s been moving towards this top lady position, and she’s finally there.

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

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

“It’s about owning my powers, believing in who I am, trusting that my opinion of my character is valid,” Kalukango said. (Kalukango landed “Paradise Square” without an audition: During a Zoom meeting with Kaufman, he said, “I don’t need you to read anything. I know you can do it. this.”)

Until recently, Kalukango, 33, has described herself as a reserved listener, an actress who tends to delay authority in the room. In the past, if she felt nervous during a rehearsal about a certain character or scene, she would let it be, then would feel awkward and stupid on stage. Until she saw other Black actresses speak up in rehearsals – such as Tonya Pinkins in “Injured Village” – that she began to start building the confidence to do the same. Then age, experience, and a pandemic 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 here and stay in a shell anymore. You must own your craft, your artwork, your people. ”

Kalukango was born in Atlanta, the youngest of Angolan parents who immigrated to the United States after escaping the civil war. Her three siblings are all much older; She remembers being too young to engage in lively political conversations at the dinner table – a place she was used to watching from behind.

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

That trajectory led her to Juilliard, where Brooks and Kalukango recall the disappointments of being the only Black women in their acting class, with few Black instructors. Brooks remembers that they were often confused with each other during auditions, and Kalukango felt that some of the instructors were not competent enough to advise her on how to incorporate her race and background into the characters. mine.

“Some teachers couldn’t convey what it meant to me to play a character—playing Hedda Gabler as a Black woman,” she recalls. “Can I interpret anything about myself in this character? Or has my color gone completely – has my culture gone from this? ”

“They don’t have those conversations,” she continued. “And so I feel unable to see.”

After graduating from college, Kalukango had a brief stint as a swing in the 2011 Off Broadway revival of “To rent,” She then made her Broadway debut as a minor actress in “Divine charm.” She continued to join the group in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by the music of Tupac Shakur, then in larger parts as the rival of Sutton Foster’s character in “The Wild Party” and as Nettie, the sister of Cynthia Erivo, Celie, in the 2015 Broadway revival “Violet.”

She became pregnant during the making of “The Color Purple”, staying with production until a month before she was due to give birth. On stage, she learned to throw herself to the ground in a way allowed by her doctor, and backstage, she wore a surgical mask to protect herself and the child from the virus. When her son was born, she thought to herself, “I can’t hold it 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 passed away, traveling with her son and mother to work, including to Chicago for “Paradise Square” and now to New York for its Broadway opening.

Kalukango’s character isn’t always in the lead; In earlier scenarios, Nelly was a character in a collection of Five Points residents, including a formerly enslaved man who fled to Canada and an immigrant who had just stepped off a boat from Ireland. The program has been in development for nine years. In 2013, Garth Drabinsky, the main producer, first heard music from “Hard time” – a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, lead vocalist of the Celtic rock band Black 47, primarily revolving around the songs of 19th-century American musician Stephen Foster, who spent time at Five Points in end of life.

Drabinsky saw the choreographic potential, the multi-layered socioeconomic dynamics of the neighborhood, and a sense that the story was not particularly known to the audience.

As the producer brought in screenwriters to develop the musical for Broadway, the show moved further and further away from Foster and his music – especially after the producer fully calculated with the Foster’s Contribution to American theatres.

It wasn’t until after “Paradise Square” was performed at California’s Berkeley Performance Theater in 2019 that the screenwriters identified the film’s heroine as Nelly, who was waiting for her husband, an Irish immigrant who fought in the Civil War, to return home.

“What has become clear is that you need to know who you’re aiming for and who you’re hoping for,” said Jason Howland, the show’s composer and music supervisor. “Ultimately, it’s Joaquina’s character.”

Nelly’s presence on the show was even bigger after the Chicago production, where audiences applauded when Kalukango sang “Let It Burn,” a climax of the second act she performed. Her powerful voice, Masi Asare, writes. show lyrics with Nathan Tysen.

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

“Paradise Square” is bursting with action and movement – ​​from the mess of Nelly’s bar, to the violent protest scenes as Irish immigrants campaigned against the draft, to the repertoire. vibrant ensemble dance that blends Irish step dance with Juba and the early days of the faucet (choreography by Bill T. Jones). Between the action, there are quieter scenes of sinister politics as a neighborhood party boss seeks to cut Nelly’s influence in her community and turn Irish residents against abolition. .

To prepare, Kalukango read seven books about Five Points and the gangsters of 19th-century New York. Knowing the history helped her shed the gym bench and assert herself when she was transferred, she said. .

In one scene, when Nelly discovers another character has a bounty on his head for killing his former master, Kalukango senses something is amiss.

Kalukango said: “The windows were open, people were walking in the street, and we were talking, holding up a ‘Wanted’ poster. “At any point, if someone sees this, we’ll all be arrested or worse, killed.”

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

When she’s doubting herself, Kalukango often thinks back to the advice she received while making “Slave Play” – something the close coordinator told the cast during a rehearsal.

“She told us ‘no’ was a full sentence,” says Kalukango. “I think that’s a revelation for a lot of us.”

She has trained for more than a decade in an industry where teachers explain how to walk, talk, and even breathe. It feels like, as actors, they’re just lucky to get one job – so the answer should always be “yes”.

“Actors, in recent times, I have real ownership,” she continued. “To be people on stage do this eight times a week. And no one knows your character better than you.”

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

However, the psychology of the characters is very different. In a situation of irony, Kaneisha, a famous writer living today, “is still mentally enslaved and bound by history,” says Kalukango. And Nelly, who was disenfranchised and lived in slavery, was able to somehow set her spirit free.

“She feels limitless to me,” she said. Joaquina Kalukango doesn’t mind saying anything more

Fry Electronics Team

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