NEW YORK — Winning a Tony Award as best lead actress in a musical cemented Joaquina Kalukango’s place in the Broadway firmament. But it also, surprisingly, cemented Kalukango’s belief that she could actually do musicals.
“It was truly a powerful moment, especially for me, because I had such a fear of doing musicals for a very long time. I was an actor at heart,” she says. “I think it was a great moment in my trajectory of owning a new side of myself that I wasn’t that comfortable with sharing for a while.”
Kalukango’s show-stopping performance in “Paradise Square” and especially her heart-felt searing second act song “Let It Burn” routinely drew audiences to their feet, a triumph of the 2021-2022 season.
Kalukango’s astonishing acting and vocal outpouring has made her one of AP’s Breakthrough Entertainers of the Year alongside Stephanie Hsu,Sadie Sink, Tenoch Huerta, Iman Vellani and more.
The Tony win capped an intensely creative period for Kalukango, who earned a 2020 Tony nomination as lead actress in a play for her work in the harrowing “Slave Play,” a ground-breaking, bracing work that mixed race, sex, taboo desires and class.
On film, she played Betty X opposite Kingsley Ben-Adir in Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night in Miami.” She also had a recurring role on the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” and appeared in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series “When They See Us.”
“I always felt like I wanted more than anything to be connected to work that kind of shifts the paradigm, that makes people think, that gets people to talk in their communities, that asks questions,” she says.
Raised in East Point, Georgia, Kalukango grew up singing Shania Twain and Whitney Houston. “I wanted to be a singer, but didn’t know that there was an actual path towards that,” she recalls.
At an eighth grade talent show, she sang Monica’s “For You I Will” with enough panache that a counselor suggested she audition for a performing arts high school. She got in and then saw their production of “Once on This Island.”
“I literally remembered just getting full body feels still sitting in the audience, seeing people that looked like me telling this amazing story,” she says.
After graduating from The Juilliard School, Kalukango made her Broadway debut as an understudy in “Godspell” and went on to join the ensemble in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by Tupac Shakur’s music and as Nettie in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple” starring Jennifer Hudson.
Kalukango’s breakthrough happened when she landed a part in “Paradise Square” about Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostling to survive in New York City in 1863. Her role was widened and deepened until she was the star. Amazingly, she didn’t need to audition.
“It had to pinch myself,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, kid, here we go. This is something you said you wanted to do and you’re about to face a fear, Let’s see you do it.’”
The past few years have been a coronation in many ways for this Broadway star. She recalls Sarah Paulson giving her a bear hug backstage after seeing her in “Slave Play.” She remembers popping champagne after her Tony win with her “Color Purple” co-stars Cynthia Erivo and Danielle Brooks.
A sign of her new status happened earlier this fall when she was invited to perform at the re-opening of Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center alongside such luminaries as Renée Fleming, Bernadette Peters, Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles and Vanessa Williams. Leonard Bernstein’s daughter introduced Kalukango, who sang his song “Take Care of This House.”
Next is a return to Broadway this holiday season as The Witch in an acclaimed revival of “Into the Woods” with an all-star roster of talent including Patina Miller, Montego Glover, Stephanie J. Block, Brian d’Arcy James and Joshua Henry. Next year she also starts shooting a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
She also wants to explore comedy after several serious roles. She is inspired by her 5-year-old son to mix it up. “Showing him just a world of imagination and all of that is kind of where I really want to start looking into, too. I want to have fun.”