Leading up to her first performance in the lead role of Nelly O'Brien in Paradise Square, Joaquina Kalukango drank in documentaries about the Civil War and dove into books like Carla L. Paterson’s Black Gotham and Leslie M. Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery, which focus on African Americans in New York during the mid 1800s.
Created by Larry Kirwan, Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare, Paradise Square takes place during the Civil War and tells the story of Irish immigrants and Black Americans in New York City fighting for a similar cause.
But nothing could prepare Kalukango, whose character is a saloon owner and neighborhood peacekeeper (a role that earned her a 2022 Tony nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical), for tackling this intense role amid recent social injustices. “When I joined this production, it was off from the riots on the Capitol. I remember watching and being shocked that this was happening in our country. When the show was brought to me, I thought, ‘Oh, this is history repeating itself.’ None of this is new. It became important for me to share this story. This is New York history. This is our shared history.”
Coming out of the pandemic and straight into rigorous rehearsals posed its own challenge. The performer recalled her experience dancing until her “calves were screaming” and taking voice lessons. “I have nothing but admiration for our incredible ensemble. These are athletes who are giving their full bodies every single day. It's truly spectacular.”
It’s this sense of passion and community that carries Kalukango through her entire performance. In the musical, she sings the penultimate number “Let It Burn,” which has regularly garnered her standing ovations. “I always like to pray beforehand,” she says of performing the song. “Just let me be a vessel. It speaks to our ancestors and so many marginalized people whose voices have not been heard,” says the performer.
“I don't feel alone because the entire cast is on that stage. In that moment, I feel like I'm carrying all these people's voices and standing up for our community in a really powerful way.”
Kalukango hopes audiences not only hear those voices but also depart the Ethel Barrymore theatre driven towards community building. “We need more grace, more love, more understanding, and more truthful conversations to start the process of healing.”