Carvens Lissaint has reached the pinnacle of success for a theater actor. Not only is he starring on Broadway night after night, he's playing George Washington in the history-making musical production Hamilton.
It's a role into which he pours not just his voice, but his entire body, and he's got the aches and pains to prove it. Shadow And Act caught up with Lissaint just before one of his regularly scheduled physical therapy appointments.
“It is one physically demanding life," Lissaint said of playing the coveted role that he landed just three months after graduating from New York University's MFA program. “It's crazy physically demanding, but I also have previous injuries even before coming into the show from when I used to play basketball and when I used to dance. I'm feeling all of it, all the pain," he said.
The role also requires some mental and emotional tension as well. Lissaint is a first generation American, a New York native, a child of Haitian immigrants—a Black man. His soulful voice and Black body bring to life America's slave-owning, Fugitive Slave Act-enacting first president George Washington. By playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda's design, this American story of a white immigrant, Alexander Hamilton—who rises from poverty to power as Washington's right-hand man, thanks to Hamilton's wit and, well, whiteness—is told using hip hop, jazz, R&B and show tunes. With Black and brown bodies, voices and musical styles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning show unveils from behind a white facade the hidden history of America's enslaved people who built this nation.
“Playing Washington makes me feel I have the power to re-shape the narrative of who inhabits the glory of freedom," Lissaint told Shadow And Act of the role. “When people see me play it, especially white people, it forces them and challenges them to think of who has the ability to run this country. In a lot of ways, I am playing this character in honor of the people who were enslaved at the time, by using this body and voice to reclaim the narrative, and let it be told through this Haitian Black man. It’s not an easy thing to do," he said. “I still wrestle with it."
Carvens Lissaint & Austin Scott- Hamilton National Tour - (c) Joan Marcus
But Lissaint doesn't just work through this double-consciousness on stage; before he was a Broadway star, he was first an award-winning poet, so he processes this in his second collection of poetry and debut EP Target Practice, which he will premiere at a sold-out show in New York on January 27.
“This is why I wrote the book [Target Practice], to talk about the areas where it may feel uncomfortable. That’s what the poem ‘The Great White Way' is about," he said.
“I tell myself I am making
a difference, that this hue, (the shade of midnight)
makes room for my kinfolk to enter,"
He wrote in the poem about performing night after night before an overwhelmingly white and monied audience. He also recalled in the piece seeing how angry and offended some white audience members were to see their history filtered through Blackness.
“Feel some type of way all you want,
but George Washington is [B]lack in this show.
His skin charcoal, thick & rich
Shoulders broad, expansive, takes space."
Even the ones who loved the show and his performance in it cause an unsettling awareness:
“Fascinating, the same people
who gave me a standing ovation
wouldn't rise to their feet & scream
if I were killed right here."
“A larger issue is, how do we change the commercial theater market that is Broadway, to allow different stories to be told," Lissaint said. “Hamilton won a lot of battles in terms of diversity on stage and employing so many actors of color. I hope future shows can continue fighting, so we can win more battles. To have more diverse stories, diverse audiences, diverse creative teams, diverse producers, to highlight narratives that aren’t just for white theater goers."
“Hamilton is great because it's our aesthetic in terms of hip-hop, R&B and it's our diverse bodies on stage, but it isn't necessarily our story, you know? But In the Heights was both," Lissaint said. "It was our story and it was also our bodies and it was our narrative and it was great to just see that, being a native New Yorker, being from uptown Manhattan," he said.
“After I saw that, and it was actually Chris Jackson who played the role of Benny, who also originated the role of George Washington [in Hamilton], he was the one who I saw where I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's a Black man. There's space for me in the theater.’ That's what really inspired me, and then I went on to write a solo show that I did off-Broadway at the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, and then I just decided to go get training and pursue acting full-time."
“I was never really successful in the classroom until I started going to acting school. My family also saw some rough financial times, so I pretty much couch-hopped for about two-and-a-half, three years. Didn't really have a place to live," he said.
“I just felt like I was called to write for the human condition, 'cause I think that there are people in the world who are hurting, and I feel like my words could either uplift them or remind them that they're not alone."
“I'll never forget; I was touring, and this young man came up to me and was like, ‘You know, I have been suffering from depression for years and I attempted suicide (I can't remember how many times). And he said, ‘I was on my way to attempt suicide again and I saw a flyer for your show at my university. I went to my dorm room and I YouTubed you and your group and I saw your poems and I told myself I had to see you perform live before I died.' And he said, ‘Now that I'm here, I feel like I have something to live for.'"
It was a life-changing conversation for Lissaint.
“The poem that he was talking about was a poem that I wrote called “Tell Them." That was about my depression. I was like, 'Oh wow, this wasn't even for me.' From that point on, that's how I operate."
“I just want to have a strong sense of joy in the work that I'm doing."