Writer: Melisa Tien
Director: Susanna Jaramillo
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Many of the plays that reopening theatres are presenting right now are shows that were scheduled to open during the pandemic. Such is the case with Melisa Tien’s new play Best Life, which was originally slated for a late March-early April run in 2020. Certainly, Best Life’s examination of race, class, and allyship was relevant in spring of 2020 and when it was featured at the Bushwick Starr’s Starr Reading Series in 2018, but the play’s conversations feel even more timely in the wake of the events of the past nineteen months. Susanna Jaramillo directs this two-hander at JACK in Brooklyn.
Best Life centers on two women: Sheryl (Erin Anderson), a wealthy white woman, and Lourdes (Cherrye J. Davis), a not-wealthy Black woman. They are the sole patrons at a café where the wait staff seems to have vanished. Sheryl wants sugar for her coffee, but she only wants the raw sugar, all of which is on Lourdes’s table. Sheryl approaches Lourdes asking for sugar and the two women start to talk. Inevitably, Sheryl says something cringe-inducing, something that highlights that she’s a white lady of means. At this point, Lourdes reveals that she can move back in time. Only a few minutes, but enough to reset the conversation. Sheryl and Lourdes repeat their conversation but with a new outcome. Every time Sheryl says something that revels her ignorance of a world beyond her experience, Lourdes resets the conversation. Sheryl has the best intentions, but it is hard for her to get more than five minutes into the conversation before she missteps. By the end, they may not exactly be friends, but there is a sense that Sheryl has a somewhat better understanding of Lourdes’s world, even if part of her understanding is how much she will never really be able to know about the experiences of being Black and poor in America.
Tien’s play highlights not only how often Nice Liberal Whites say and do racist, classist, and ableist things, but how long it takes to set us right when we do. Sheryl says that she is ready to do the work but in the next sentence she mispronounces Lourdes’s name or snaps her fingers for the waitstaff. The process of Sheryl doing the work is exhausting for both women. That does not mean that Best Life is exhausting. It is funny and thoughtful, even while it asks its audience to interrogate their own behaviour. Acting is solid all around; Erin Anderson does a spectacular job of embodying a well-meaning lady of leisure, while Cherrye J. Davis captures the exhaustion and rage the seethes beneath Lourdes’s patient exterior.
Design elements are also strong. Alicia J. Austin’s costumes telegraph a lot about class without being heavy-handed; Sheryl is the kind of rich white woman who goes for afternoon coffee in a caftan and sports a substantial diamond ring—she is casual, but never too casual. Deb O’s set is a little uneven, but in the way that a quirky coffeehouse might be, with mismatched chairs and tables. Like Sheryl’s caftan, they exude an air of forced casualness. Christina Watanabe’s lighting and Carsen Joenk’s sound design do a fine job of carrying us back and forth in time.
Best Life will undoubtedly make some audience members uncomfortable. It should. That should not dissuade people from seeing it. It encourages conversations that we need to have and, as the characters do, have over and over until we can begin to hope that we might be able to get it right.
Runs until 6 November 2021 | Photo Credit: Al Foote III