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Actress Joaquina Kalukango wants you to keep talking about ‘Slave Play’

Kalukango on play’s impact, self-care and why we should stop putting black characters in a box

Actress Joaquina Kalukango does not mind the controversy surrounding Jeremy O. Harris’ provocative Broadway debut, Slave Play. In fact, she encourages it.

“I think it is important for people to not let outside opinions stop them from seeing it. There’s space for it all,” Kalukango said. “That is what we are trying to get to — that point of being human and respecting that there is room for everybody’s stories, instead of giving one strict narrative of what theater should be and how black women should behave.”

Slave Play is funny, yet excruciating. It has received a lot of rave reviews. The success, however, is not without controversy.

In Slave Play, Kalukango plays Kaneisha, a black woman enrolled in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” Yes, you read that correctly. In an effort to rekindle sexual intimacy, she and her white partner participate in a radical experiment disguised as fantasy play. She takes on the role of a slave and he portrays her violent, sex-crazed master.

“I often find the reason people have an issue with Kaneisha is because they want to put her in a box, the same way we do with a lot of our black characters,” Kalukango said. “We don’t always give them the grace to be human, the grace to have complex or troubling thoughts, the grace to figure things out.”

Slave Play is not Kalukango’s first Broadway venture. She starred as Nettie in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of The Color Purple and was an original cast member of Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical inspired by the life and lyrics of Tupac Shakur.

Kalukango spoke with The Undefeated about Slave Play’s impact on the culture, self-care, and what it’s like to twerk on stage while Rihanna is sitting in the audience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When Slave Play premiered off-Broadway, Kaneisha was played by your friend and fellow Juilliard alum Teyonah Parris. What was it like to take over the role on Broadway?

After [Teyonah] told me she wouldn’t be able to do the Broadway production, she told me I should audition. And when I read the play, I was so shocked and confused and I was like, ‘Wait, T, you speak for how long? This whole third act is you, bruh? What?’ It was scary and visceral and raw and it gave more questions than answers. That was exciting to me.

In the show, you twerk to Rihanna’s song “Work” and I’m pretty sure you’re the only person in history who can say they’ve done that on a Broadway stage.

Gagging, gagging!

And she watched the show.

When she walked by, I was like, ‘This is what a billionaire smells like.’

What does it mean to you to have such a high caliber of artists engaging with this work as fans?

It’s so exciting when you hear people get inspired by what we are doing. It all feels very creative and Jeremy has done a great job of getting people from different aspects of entertainment into the room.

There is going to be a wave of young women who flock to this role. Any advice for the future Kaneishas?

Bring all of yourself to the character, because there is so much to play with. Be as honest and open and vulnerable as you can be to the experience, and trust what you find. And take full care of yourself.

How?

Massages on two-show days and serious meditation. Also, Kit Kats. And I’m not going to lie, a shot of Grand Marnier neat.

Brittani Samuel is a freelance journalist living, writing, and art-ing in New York. Bylines can be found at VICE, American Theatre, OkayAfrica, IAM&Co and a few other places on the Internet.