Carvens Lissaint is tired of having to prove he belongs in his own building. He’s a 6 foot 3, 29-year-old black man, raised in Harlem, and he lives in a new upscale glass residential tower in downtown Brooklyn.
He moved there in September, the same month he landed a starring role in “Hamilton” on Broadway, one of the biggest hits in musical theater history. But again and again — five times in all, by his count — the rotating cast of security desk attendants treats him like an outsider.
“I come here with some Trader Joe’s groceries, about to cook my wife some dinner, and they’re like, ‘I’m sorry, deliveries are downstairs. You have to call up,’” he said. “They just see a black guy wearing Beats headphones, sweats and a hoodie. … I’m like, ’I live here. These are my keys.’”
Lissaint, the first-generation son of poor Haitian immigrants, is certainly new to this lifestyle. He was homeless in New York not long ago. Some nights, if he didn’t have a place to go, he would just ride the subway from end to end, writing poetry until the sun came up and performing it for cash.
Now the spoken-word poet earns six figures playing George Washington in a Broadway musical that reimagines America’s white Founding Fathers as men of color, rapping about the Revolutionary War and creation of the U.S. government.
Lissaint’s success in some ways recapitulates the narrative at the heart of “Hamilton,” the story of the scrappy underclass bootstrapping itself into the American dream. This is a complicated thing to reckon with, the child of Haitians playing a white colonist who owned 123 slaves.
“In a lot of ways, I’m playing this character in honor of the people who were Washington’s slaves, by reclaiming the narrative and letting it be told through this Haitian black man,” he said. “When people see me play him, it challenges how we think of who has the ability to run this country.”
At the same time, the portrayal in “Hamilton” of an American meritocracy run on grit and perseverance is a myth, especially for people of color. Now that he has a platform, Lissaint has some things he’d like to say about his experience of racism, even if it means implicating some of the people in the seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
…to be continued
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