'Hamilton' Star Carvens Lissaint Knows He Could Still Be 'Target Practice'
Photo Credit: Carvens Lissaint
Broadway , Interviews

'Hamilton' Star Carvens Lissaint Knows He Could Still Be 'Target Practice'

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.jpg
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.”

He knows that a credit in a playbill for even the most beloved musical in recent history can’t stop the doormen at his Brooklyn apartment from mistaking him for a delivery man, let alone “reverse a bullet back into its chamber, sweet talk [a] trigger from retracting, or un-spark the flash from its muzzle.”

Despite the respectability politics preached to Black folk, there is no height to reach where Blackness can be negotiated into a bullet-proof shield. But, as Lissaint wrote in “The Great White Way,” he hopes he can create space for other Black people to have access to resources and opportunities to fulfill their potential and attain a bit more security.

“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.”

For Lissaint, one such story was Miranda’s first Broadway production, 2008’s multiple Tony Award-winning In the Heights, about Black and Latinx life in uptown Manhattan.

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.”

Especially for a child of immigrants whose parents believed in more stable careers as a guaranteed path to success, pursuing acting was not easy. Though he now has three degrees, at the time he decided to be an actor for a living, he had flunked out of community college.

“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.

Staying with friends in their college dorms helped him stay afloat while he toured with poetry slams across the tri-state area. Struggling with depression, Lissaint found solace and healing first in writing poetry and then performing it. As a Christian, he soon came to believe in his poetry as an act of obedience to God and a service for other people like him.

“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.”

He didn’t understand the power of sharing his story publicly until a young man explained how Lissaint’s work saved his life.

“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.”

That’s why he performs night after night in Hamilton; so that another Black kid can see what Lissaint saw in Chris Jackson in In the Heights: the possibility of a different life. And even as his own continues to evolve—from Broadway star, author and recording artist, to even larger platforms—Lissaint hopes for one thing:

“I just want to have a strong sense of joy in the work that I’m doing.”

 He’s putting his body on the line to do it.

Carvens Lissaint’s poetry collection and EP Target Practice are available for pre-order on iTunes here.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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