Tony winner Joaquina Kalukango on the Black theatre artists that lift her up

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Mid-show standing ovations are rare on Broadway — unless you're at Paradise Square. When leading actress Joaquina Kalukango sings the penultimate number, a power ballad called "Let It Burn," she's met with a standing ovation nearly every night.

So it's no wonder that when she performed the song at the 2022 Tony Awards, holding an impossibly long final note as tears rolled down her cheeks, the audience at Radio City Music Hall, too, rose to their feet. (It's worth seeing for yourself.)

Kalukango's former co-star in The Color Purple on Broadway, 2015 Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, was heard cheering especially loudly. Later in the ceremony, standing on stage with Danielle Brooks, another Color Purple co-star, she'd say, "What an honor it is to be back in the theatre and reunited with you, Danielle, and you, Joaquina — our sister on stage and, honestly, in life."

Erivo and Brooks were presenting the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and there was joyous shrieking, crying, and hugging all around when it went to Kalukango. This was her second Tony nomination, after a Best Leading Actress in a Play nod for Slave Play last year, but her first win.

"It felt divine. It felt magical," Kalukango later said on receiving the award from Erivo and Brooks. "These women have literally spoken life into me so many times. There really are no words for that. I love them with my whole heart; they're my sisters."

But these were far from the only Black theatre artists that inspired Kalukango on the night of her win. "I just keep thinking of the women who came before me," she said. "I keep thinking of Melba Moore, I keep thinking of Jennifer Holliday, I keep thinking of Pearl Bailey. I think of all of these women who paved the way — even Phylicia Rashad." Rashad became the first Black winner of the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play in 2004 for A Raisin in the Sun, and she won the Best Featured Actress in a Play award in 2022 for Skeleton Crew.

Kalukango won this year for her role as Nelly Friedman, the owner of a tavern (the titular Paradise Square) that provides a safe space for free Blacks and Irish immigrants in Civil War-era New York. As the Draft Riots violently pit these two groups against each other, "Let It Burn" serves as her powerful declaration that, even if her tavern is destroyed, the community she's fostered never will.

Kalukango embraced a similar spirit of community in her acceptance speech. After thanking her sister, who designed her dazzling gold gown, and her parents, she moved to the team behind Paradise Square. This team also included multiple Black artists, including 2022 Featured Actor nominee Sidney DuPont, Best Choreography nominee Bill T. Jones, Best Original Score co-nominee Masi Asare, and Best Book of a Musical co-nominee Christina Anderson.

"Thank you to my incredible company. This [award] is ours. Look at what we have created; we gave ourselves a voice," Kalukango said. "Those are the lyrics that Masi and Nathan [Tysen, co-lyricist] gave us. Thank you, Christina Anderson, for centering Nelly's voice in this story."

"I give thanks to all of the nameless ancestors who have suffered. This song ["Let It Burn"] — this show gives power to that. I honor them every day," Kalukango also said of the Black and working-class citizens whose stories Paradise Square tells.

In a later interview, she added, "You can't not give [this show] your all. People in Five Points were just trying to survive, trying to live in that community and live their lives out fully. And so to not be able to honor them just would feel so disrespectful to their stories. It's an honor and privilege to be able to tell that story."

Get Paradise Square tickets now.

Originally published on

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