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‘Paradise Square’ is historical account of America’s fleeting racial harmony

Paradise Square

New York, 1863. As the Civil War rages on, Irish immigrants who had previously fled the Great Famine and subsequently settled alongside free-born Blacks and those who had been freed from slavery or escaped—arriving by means of the Underground Railroad—and they all lived and loved together in the unlikeliest of neighborhoods – the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of Lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum. A new culture was created from an accidental society.

But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly New York Draft Riots of July 1863.

The New York City Draft Riots, sometimes referred to as the Manhattan Draft Riots and known at the time as Draft Week, were violent disturbances in Lower Manhattan, demonstrating working-class discontent with new laws passed by Congress to draft men to fight in the ongoing American Civil War.

Irish and Blacks live in harmony—a united image of America that is very different from what folks see today. In “Paradise Square,” folks are too busy trying to survive as opposed to NOT working as a community.

In Five Points, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square. These characters include the indomitable woman who owns the saloon, Nelly Freeman, a Black woman whose Irish husband has gone off to join the war. Two-time Tony Award Nominee Joaquina Kalukango plays Nelly. Her husband Willie O’Brien is played by Matt Bogart.


Remember that although it’s 1863, interracial marriage was probably inevitable within the community that Nelly and her husband live. She is super fierce and has built an amazing community around her that is embodied by a robust ensemble of nearly 30 actors featured in the play.

This cast also includes Nelly’s Irish-Catholic sister-in-law Annie O’Brien, played by Chilina Kennedy, and Annie’s Black minister husband, Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis, played by Nathaniel Stampley, among others who have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.

JACOBI HALL, Chloe Davis, Kayla Pecchioni, Dwayne Clark, Hailee Kaleem Wright, Jay McKenzie, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Karen Burthwright, Sidney DuPont and Joshua Keith command the stage.

With visceral and nuanced staging and choreography that captures the pulsating energy when Black and Irish cultures meet, the musical “Paradise Square,” which was originally conceived by Larry Kirwan, depicts an overlooked true-life moment when hope and possibility shone brightly.

Kirwan told Chad Jones, who was writing for Datebook in 2018, about his hopes of “Paradise Square” going to Broadway, which it is after this Chicago run: “I want people to know there was a time when these Irish immigrants, mostly women, came into the country and didn’t have any ideas of racial superiority.”

He continued: “‘Paradise Square’ is ultimately about African American men and Irish women who didn’t go along with the narrative of America.

They weren’t trying to change it. They just loved each other, got married, had children, and tried to live a new life in this country. It didn’t work out, but it did happen.”

In the play, the raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls are prominent. It is here in Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba. Afterward, tap dancing helped bring into dominance the rich cultural history with the careers of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Sammy Davis, Jr., brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines, and Savion Glover, among others.

These dance numbers are the result of the work of renowned Black choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jones, previously speaking with “Culture Vulture,” said: “We’re speaking of a community where Irish and Blacks were socializing in a time before Irish made it to ‘white.’ The Irish were often ranked lower than Blacks. So, there is ancient step dancing, African polyrhythms, stories told through gesture.”


In essence, these two communities suffered and survived well, until social norms and politics made it easy for those with white skin to think they were superior to Blacks.

On a recent Sunday morning, “Paradise Square” principals appeared on “Real Talk With Hermene Hartman.”

Garth Drabinsky, Producer, “Paradise Square,” said: “The long arc of the Civil Rights Movement is evident in this play. A 20-city block area somehow became this remarkable melting pot of all of these cultures, and it is manifest, of course, in the choreography, in the show more as much as anything.”

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Drabinsky has been associated with the arts world for nearly 45 years and chose Chicago as the kickoff for “Paradise Square” before its Broadway run. “Every time I come back to Chicago, I see that the audiences and the nightlife and the vivacity of the city is as diverse as it is. And [for that audience] to be able to walk out and realize that progress is a continuum, and there’s only hope and the future for us to create this.” He urged patrons to come out to not only support live theatre but to enjoy a great performance with historical significance—along with great singing and breathtaking costumes.

Eileen LaCario, Vice President, Broadway In Chicago, added:

“We want to honor the people of this time. We want to honor their stories. A lot of people don’t know about this history. There’s a promise there, knowing that there was a time where people lived together, loved together, and I think that can be inspiring for us and can also be very helpful.”

Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play” for her role as Kaneisha in “Slave Play.” She has also starred on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” among other stages, film, and television credits.

Jones is artistic director/co-founder of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and founding artistic director of New York Live Arts. He received the 2014 Doris Duke Award; the 2013 Presidential Medal of the Arts; Tony Awards for Best Choreography for “FELA!” and “Spring Awakening,” among others.

“Paradise Square” plays a five-week limited engagement that ends December 5 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.). For more information about tickets or subscriptions, visit

Elaine 1
Elaine H. Bowen

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].


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