In the new play “Slave Play” (playing a strictly limited 17-week engagement)now playing in New York, at the Golden Theatre, and opening, Sunday, October 6, actress, Joaquina Kalukango who plays Kaneisha opens and closes the conversational play with a bang.
While in line last month, a very well dressed African American man, dressed in a smart suit and brilliantly polished, black wing-tipped shoes, reprimanded me for participating in “race porn” two words, when put together, made me scratch my head in confusion. Then I saw theplay and understand his concern much better.
In New York tongues are wagging about Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,”which premiered last fall, and immediately became the most talked-about play of the year, garnered intense critical acclaim, stunned audiences with its unflinching examination of race and sex, with many calling Harris one of the most promising playwrights of his generation.
Now poised to open on Broadway (October 6) words like explosive, raw, and funny are married with words like race, sex, and power.
Here’s the sad news that the press release wanted to highlight as a triumph is that Harris becomes the sixth Black writer to have a new play on Broadway in the last decade. See what I mean?
What’s Slave Play about? Well, it opens in the Old South on the MacGregor Plantation — in the breeze, in the cotton fields…and in the crack of the whip. It’s an antebellum fever-dream, where fear and desire entwine in the looming shadow of the master’shouse. Jim trembles as Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) handles melons in the cottage, Alana perspires in time with the plucking of Phillip’s fiddle in the boudoir, while Dustin cowers at the heel of Gary’s big, black boot in the barn. Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems.
What’s “Slave Play”about? Race. The legacy of trauma we, as African American feel from the abuse by white people from the top of the chain of power to the very bottom. When Kenisha, a slave woman, is cleaning the floors and dancing to the tune of Rihanna’s song “Work” (Work, work, work, work, work)you understand—immediately this is not what you thought.
“Slave Play” is the recipient of the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, The Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences, and the 2018 Paula Vogel Award. The play was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Playwrighting Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play.
Starting the explosive play and end it with a pregnant question is actress Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha) who was last seen on Broadway in the Tony®, Emmy®, and Grammy® Award-winning revival of “The Color Purple” as Nettie. Her other Broadway credits include “Holler If You Hear Me and Godspell.” Off-Broadway she was seen in the “Red Letter Plays: F-ing A” (Signature), “Our Lady Of Kibeho” (Signature), “Antony and Cleopatra” (The Public Theater and Royal Shakespeare Company), “Emotional Creature” (Signature and Berkeley Rep), “Hurt Village” (Signature, Theatre World Award, Drama Desk Award nomination) and “Rent” (NYTW). In spring 2020, she will also be seen in the musical adaptation of “The Visitor,” opposite David Hyde Pierce and directed by Daniel Sullivan at The Public Theater. In television, she can currently be seen in “When They See Us” directed by Ava Duvernay on Netflix and “Instinct” on CBS All Access.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation with Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha) currently starringin “Slave Play”the acclaimed new work by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Robert O’Hara and produced by Greg Nobile and Jana Shea of Seaview Productions, Troy Carter, Level Forward, and Nine Stories, founded by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: I was standing in line for ‘Slave Play’ and a very well-dressedAfrican Americanchided me for supporting ‘race porn’ — what is race porn? You play the character, Kaneisha a brave performance. Beautiful work. How did you get this role?
JOAQUINA KALUKANGO: Oh, my goodness. My friend did the production at New York Theater workshop. I didn’t see the play,but I read the script and I remember feeling shocked, confusion, anger and then I had to ask myself, what is this because it was going in so many different places that I did not think it was going. The first image is of a slave woman sweeping up the floor.
LAS: That’s your character, Kaneisha, sweeping the floor and dancing, using your body and making people gasp!
JK: (laughing) Well, my character [Kaneisha] does open the play, yes. Again, the other impression on reading the script are that it’s not what I originally thought. I have not had any experience in a theater-like that in a long time. It keeps people guessing, it is constantly changing.
LAS: It’s so well written and so well cast, so this is a compliment … wait for it … you dominate the stage.
JK: (laughing) Well from the actors’ point-of-view the character has ten pages of a monologue and that never happens, as a Black woman that never happens.
LAS: Is that right?
JK: Sadly, yes. For a Black woman to speak that long and people have to sit through that, it was amazing. She’s filled with so many complicated thoughts, emotions, she was messy, she has OCD. You don’t get to play that kind of role, often, as a Black woman on stage, and this is on Broadway.
LAS: Kaneisha is a ball of energy for sure.
JK: I knew that not everyone would like her, honestly but that’s never my concern. My job is to find the truth of this character, most people were so angered by her actions because they assumed it was her [white] lover but they are a married couple and they made the decision together. So clearly they love each other. They made a commitment to each other to try to fix something that’s not working. Now, it’s messed up that she thinks that’s how they should fix it [radical sexual therapy} but she discovers something else by the end of it. For me that ending, I looked at it as a total, at least in my portrayal, was total freedom by the end. Freedom of your trauma, something that you no longer have to hold by yourself. That’s the thing that I wanted people to get in the end. As Black people, we hold the trauma of slavery so much for ourselves like it didn’t happen to both people. The oppressors are very much involved. Those things are passed down in your DNA.
LAS: Preach … sorry, continue.
JK: The oppressors are very much involved. Those things are passed down in your DNA, that psyche, that pathology, that toxic mentality, is passed down. And we have to ask yourselves, hey, we live in the same world right now. I’ve done my research. Are you going to do your research? I’m not teaching people anymore! At this point, you have to hold the weight of that too. I think the release that exorcism was that last thing. She is fully saying, I’m not carrying this [weight] anymore. Thank you, thank you for finally carrying your part now. Now you know what this feels like. I don’t know if everyone gets that about the end.
LAS: I understood Kaneisha and I understood the powerful, powerful ending. I was in mostly white audiences. There was a lot of rumbling under her breath .. they didn’t understand it but the opening …you gave me life. The way you moved your whole body I saw Mother Africa. You were calling the ancestors. It’s going to be church up in there but a different kind of church. … feel me?
JK: It’s so crazy. We had a Blackout night where the entire audience was all Black. 800 Black people. Immediately, the director thought we might have to stop this show. When I said “ah’ — people were calling back. It was beautiful. It’s the best. It’s absolutely freeing. I don’t know why people had a problem with how I was moving. This thing is real. This is just how we move. It’s spiritual. Itain’t got nothing to do with you. When I hear a rhythm and a beat in my body and I start to move. That’s us.
LAS: I wish I was there on a Black Out day, 800 of us responding to ‘A Slave Play’ and your performance!
JK: I wish we could do another Blackout performance, it was such a different show. What I notice is that when Black people are coming into this thing with a majority white audience can no longer enjoy this show. They are looking at what white people are responding to, what are they laughing at and that becomes another form of racism because you can’t fully enjoy the show yourself. It’s crazy because that night [Black out night] they got everything, every gesture, every eye roll. They were talking back and demanding that she read him [her White husband] for sure! It was like being in a Magic Johnson theater and a Tyler Perry show—all in one. It was the best feeling ever. This is what theater is supposed to be, packed with people unafraid to give feedback. That audience and our interaction — this is why you get involved in theater. It was a spiritual thing.
LAS: You are right. It was a spiritual thing. I did hear a lot of people say, that they had to think about what they saw. That’s a good thing. Most people discard their Playbills. 42nd Street is littered with Playbills.
JK: It’s true.
LAS: Did you have contact with the playwright [Jeremy O. Harris] during the rehearsal process?
JK: Yes, it was great. He was in the room and made changes.
LAS: What’s your favorite couple in the play?
JK: That’s a great question. I would say Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) just because of their energy and their passion. They went full-out in their exploration and listened to each other in a way and vibed together in a real way. I feel they are the only couple to actually get to a full realization of what that moment meant. They were the only couple who actually completed the experiment.
LAS: What’s the most surprising thing someone has said to you about your performance or the play?
JK: Great question but I’ve been looking for people to talk [to me] about it but they don’t seem to want to engage. I did have friends say it was a lot to unpack. So …
LAS:As an actress, you really owned your space. I really want to share that in print. You gave me Viola Davis vibes. You are a smart actress.
JK: I’ll take that. Thank you.
LAS: What’s next for you?
JK: I’m supposed to do a musical at the Public Theater called The Visitor in the spring of 2020. I’m working on a television show that I can’t talk about. In terms of what I want to gravitate toward, I mean Jeremy [Jeremy O. Harris) has kind of spoiled me. I’m being honest. I am really interested in complex characters. I feel like the things we’ve been taught to play as Black women and flat. It’s like Black people have to be this monolithic thing. Like thereis only one way to be a black woman and I am interested in really complex thoughts. I’m interested in really messy stories that are not cookie-cutter that are not neat and clean because I don’t think that’s human beings. I think we have lots of complexities that we need to revel. I’m honestly interested in authentic, full human beings and great stories that are going to challenge people to be better. I also want to start producing and writing my own stuff.
LAS: I can see that. Thank you for talking with us. You are a force on stage and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Tickets are available atTo help ensure that the production is accessible to all ticket buyers, the producers have confirmed that 10,000 tickets will be made available at $39 each throughout the 17-week run