Joaquina Kalukango (‘Paradise Square’) on earning standing ovations and ‘honoring lost voices’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“It’s a New York story that not a lot of people knew about,” explains Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango of the musical “Paradise Square.” The actress plays Nelly, a born-free Black woman in 1863 who owns a bar in the neighborhood then known as the Five Points. “This was something I never saw before,” claims the performer. Nelly has a unique social standing for the time period and the neighborhood contained a harmonious mix of cultures which was unheard of in other locations. Kalukango says crafting Nelly’s story was “a way of honoring lost voices” by highlighting an important part of our country’s history. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Kalukango reveals that she “was not aware, not at all” of the history of the Five Points. “Paradise Square” focuses primarily on the relationship between African Americans and Irish immigrants. Many audiences will be surprised to see that these two cultures lived happily side by side because of what the actress refers to as a “commonality of hate” which helped them join together. “They were both marginalized groups,” she points out. But over the course of the musical, anxiety around an army draft and scheming from the wealthy elite, tear these friendly groups apart.

SEE A.J. Shively interview: ‘Paradise Square’

“It just feels timely and relevant. You hear it in the audience,” describes Kalukango. In the wake of the Capitol riots on January 6, and the racism-fueled mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, the musical is certainly speaking to the sharp divisions in our country. The tragedy in seeing the people of the Five Points succumb to division serves as a warning. “Rhetoric is so important,” suggests the actress. “Othering people… it all just keeps repeating.”

Nelly’s frustrations and rage at seeing her neighborhood torn apart unleashes in a fiery eleven o’clock number titled “Let it Burn.” “It’s a call, it’s an anthem, it’s standing up in the face of injustice,” says the Tony nominee of the song. Though she’s the only one belting to the rafters during that moment, Kalukango is adamant that she doesn’t feel alone on stage. Not only can she feel her cast standing behind her, but it’s a moment where she can feel her ancestors working through her. In the actress’s mind she is “speaking for those nameless people in our history who had to go through those atrocities.

The musical doesn’t end with “Let it Burn,” but Kalukango’s performance is powerful enough to command the audience to their feet every night for a thundering standing ovation. “I’m so grateful I can’t see them,” she admits, pointing out that the stage lights are blinding at that moment, “because I think I would freak out.” But there is certainly a deep appreciation and connection felt between actor and audience. “I do feel the energy,” she describes as a smile crosses her face. “It’s like a thousand people’s different energies hitting you in the chest.”

“Paradise Square” is Kalukango’s second Tony Award nomination after contending last season for “Slave Play.” She previously won the Theatre World Award for “Hurt Village” and won a SAG Ensemble Award as part of the cast of “One Night in Miami.”

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