Atlanta’s Joaquina Kalukango wins Tony for best leading actress in a musical

Joaquina Kalukango, winner of the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for "Paradise Square," poses in the press room during the 75th Annual Tony Awards at 3 West Club on June 12, 2022, in New York City. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Joaquina Kalukango, winner of the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for "Paradise Square," poses in the press room during the 75th Annual Tony Awards at 3 West Club on June 12, 2022, in New York City. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/TNS)

Credit: TNS

It’s just the latest in a long list of honors for the former Tri-Cities High School student.

Joaquina Kalukango, an Atlanta native and alumna of Tri-Cities High School in East Point, won the Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall. She earned the honor for her powerful portrayal of Nelly O’Brien, a go-getter bar owner in Civil War-era lower Manhattan, in “Paradise Square.”

O’Brien, whose father escaped slavery, runs the Paradise Square bar in the Five Points neighborhood, offering safety to her community while putting herself in danger. Within the neighborhood, escaped slaves and free African Americans lived and worked alongside Irish immigrants, trying to make ends meet amid violence and economic uncertainty.

“Paradise Square” was nominated for 10 Tony Awards. This win comes after Kalukango’s nomination for her role in “Slave Play” at the 2021 Tony Awards. She also received a SAG Award nomination for her role as Betty X in Regina King’s directorial debut, “One Night in Miami.”

On Sunday, Kalukango, 33, got a standing ovation for her performance of “Let It Burn.” In the musical, Nelly confronts rioters who set fire to Paradise Square — “You can burn it down to ash and then out of ash we’ll grow,” she sings. “If you think we’ll run away, you’ve got a lot to learn. We are stronger than your fire, and I say let it burn.”

“Thank you to all of the nameless ancestors who have suffered,” Kalukango said during her acceptance speech. “This song, this show gives power to that. I honor them everyday.”

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Joaquina Kalukango from "Paradise Square" performs the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Credit: Charles Sykes

Joaquina Kalukango from "Paradise Square" performs the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Credit: Charles Sykes

Combined ShapeCaption
Joaquina Kalukango from "Paradise Square" performs the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Credit: Charles Sykes

Credit: Charles Sykes

Kalukango’s parents fled Angola as political refugees and came to live in Atlanta. Kalukango told Forbes that she attributes her start in the arts to a middle school guidance counselor who told her to audition for the Tri-Cities High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet program. In ninth grade, she performed in the musical “Sarafina!” which is set during apartheid in South Africa, which she said gave her intense joy and set her on this path.

But in high school, she did not learn about much of the history included in “Paradise Square,” leading her to spend hours researching and reading about this period in American history.

Kalukango, who graduated from The Juilliard School, starred in True Colors Theater Company’s “The Wiz” in Atlanta, and she was first winner of True Colors’ August Wilson Monologue Competition, created by Kenny Leon’s Atlanta-based theater company.

Kalukango beat out fellow nominees Sharon D. Clarke of “Caroline, Or Change”; Carmen Cusack of “Flying Over Sunset”; Sutton Foster of “The Music Man”; and Mare Winningham of “Girl From the North Country.”

“I’ve got to give thanks and praise to God,” Kalukango said in her acceptance speech on Sunday. “Thank you, God, for giving me the best parents in the world. My parents sacrificed everything for me to live my dreams.”