The first musical Tony-award winning actress Joaquina Kalukango ever saw was Once On This Island. It was a transformative experience.
“I just remember being so amazed at all of these people that looked like me,” Kalukango tells ESSENCE. “That story specifically hit me in a way-I had never seen a play or a musical at that time in my life so it was just the first of everything. Of storytelling, music, dance, our stories being told for our people and our community. It hit me all at once.”
In the past three years, Kalukango has been intentional about choosing roles that hit her in that same way. “I have had a reframing of my mind and trying to decolonize my mind in the stories that we’re telling,” she explains. “There are so many untold stories about the African diaspora. And as much as I can to reveal that to share it, I want to do that. That’s definitely become my life’s mission now.”
This mission was spurred after Kalukango completed her Tony-nominated performance as Kaneisha in the controversial and groundbreaking production of Slave Play.
“What I was noticing for a while, even in school, was it was hard to find productions or plays specifically written for us, by us, directed by us. What’s considered classical? Who are our greats? I just wanted to center myself. I wanted to center stories about us, trust our own voices. Trust our stories. And do all I can to support it, quite honestly. So I’ve been supporting everything that’s Black.”
Her quest to tell Black stories led Kalukango to the role of Nelly O’ Brien in the Broadway musical Paradise Square. Nelly is a free Black woman who owns a saloon in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood where Black Americans and Irish immigrants live in harmony. She’s easily the show’s most dynamic character. But in the original version of the play, she was not the main character. In order for Nelly to come across as authentically as possible, Kalukango had quite a bit of input in her development.
“I love reading. So once I knew what this time period was about, what this show was about, I completely immersed myself in the world, specifically in New York. I came in prepared to say, ‘What about this, then? How can we deepen this scene?’ Up until the last minute before reviewers were coming to see the show, I got on a Zoom with our castmates and our book writer and said, ‘This scene still feels incomplete. We’re not telling our full story here. How can we deepen it?’”
Thankfully, Christina Anderson, the show’s book writer, was open to Kalukango’s input. What audiences see on stage now, is a collaborative effort. Still, there’s no denying that Kalukango is the one to watch in the show. She’s been nominated for a Tony for lead actress in a musical. Witnessing Kalukango’s performance of the show’s second to last number “Let It Burn,” it’s clear she’s tapped into some supernatural space.
“I pray every time before I step on the stage to be a vessel,” Kalukango says. “I understand the gravity of that song. To me, it’s an anthem, it’s a battle cry. It speaks to so many moments of our collective history in the African Diaspora of just burning down systems of oppression. It’s giving a voice to so many nameless people. So many people’s stories we don’t know. I feel like when I’m on stage, I’m surrounded by thousands or millions of people that you can’t see. I don’t feel alone.”
In addition to those who join her on stage, Kalukango wants Black people in the physical world to know that they are also welcome.
“I just want more of our people there,” she says. “I’m always interested in how we can get more of us to know these stories and know that the space is for us. Broadway is for us.”