Jeremy Shamos, Tony Award nominee for Best Featured Actor in a Play, has to ask our waiter whether he should order the cheeseburger or the club sandwich. His indecision is apt, considering that we're here to talk about how the actor handles playing two polarized characters in "Clybourne Park." In Act One, Shamos plays Karl – a man who's trying to keep his neighbors from selling their home to the community's first black family in 1959. In Act Two, he plays Steve – part of a couple who's trying to buy the same house from an African-American family in 2009. Over lunch (the Karl burger won out over the Steve sandwich), we asked Shamos to talk us through his experience with those characters and the modern relevance of the race issues in "Clybourne Park."
You play two characters in the show – was that a challenge?
I find it to be an actor's dream. Every actor likes to be transformational and try their hand at different things. So to be able to do that in the same night is a dream come true. They're so different – the time is different, and it's a completely different vibe, and the set's different. Once I come off intermission and change my clothes and muss my hair up, then it's like the other [character] is completely gone. I think it would be more challenging if it was the exact same setting and same time, and you were playing a slightly different character. But it feels like it's two different styles of theater, and the characters are so different.
So you don't think they're incarnations of the same character in different times?
I think any parallels that the audience wants to draw, [that's] for the audience to do. I don't think Pam [McKinnon, the director] did, though I think Bruce [Norris, the playwright] did, in his own way. The play folds on itself so intricately and smartly, the audience gets to do that, I think. Do they relate to each other? Probably. But I don't work to try to make things relevant or fit or resonate.
Do you think they come off as the bad guys in both settings?
I think that Karl in the first act can come off as a bad guy, in the most simplified version. When people are searching for that kind of narrative, then he'd be the bad guy, because he brings race into the picture. I think what Bruce does elegantly and very well – and disturbingly for some people – is not make it easy, like 'Yes, he's the bad guy!' In the second act, I don't think my character is a villain. Maybe he's perceived that way, but I think what both characters have in common is that they both have an agenda. Karl, out of ignorance, and Steve, out of brashness, are not afraid to bring up something that they think is hypocritical. They just sort of tell it like it is. And in the world of racial politics, the guy who's like, 'Hey, let's just talk about this!' could end up getting branded as racist. Because why would you even bring up race?
In that case, whoever tries to bring up the issues could be labeled as racist?
What Bruce does really well is show that political correctness, and our ability to sort of talk about it, almost makes it worse. We can go through a whole afternoon where we might as well bring it up. It's an issue in that neighborhood, it obviously is. They somehow almost are able to get through the whole play without talking about it, but they're talking about it the whole time. If you bring it up, it's dangerous.
So we face the same issues today, but we've found better ways to talk around it?
I think there's certain language we can use so that we know we're not offending anyone, but the issues are the same. In the play, part of what you see is that people were more genuinely polite in the 1950s. Now they're like fake polite. You can spend time with people that you hate nowadays. In the '50s, you just wouldn't spend enough time with them – there wouldn't be enough language to talk around the fact that you feel different from each other, disagree with each other. The world is more integrated in a good way, so we have to find ways to talk about things, but it's too bad that learning all these ways to talk hasn't necessarily improved relations.
Is now a particularly relevant time for this play?
The disturbing thing is that I feel like it will be relevant for a long time. It's great to be part of a play that's part of the national dialogue. It brings things to the forefront that can be discussed. You want to think that it will make one less racial event in the following year, and inspire someone to have some kind of discussion or town meeting. Potentially, if it would become less and less relevant, that would be nice. You imagine that in the third act that would take place in 2059, the people in 2009 would seem old-fashioned. Like, 'I can't believe that they'd talk that way.' And you hope.