Best Life Review. Redoing Black-White Relations.

In “Best Life,” two strangers start talking to one another (or at least at each other) while sitting at different tables in a café. 

Lourdes, a Black woman (Cherrye J. Davis), says: “An egg fell on my head this morning” – and repeats it several more times.

Sheryl, a white woman (Erin Anderson), says: “May I take some of your sugar if you’re not using it? “

After a few more exchanges, Sheryl absorbs what Lourdes has been saying,  asks her where the egg came from (Lourdes doesn’t know) and says: “I’ve had bird shit fall on me before, but never an egg. “

In a few moments, Lourdes calls out “Go back.” And the scene more or less repeats itself, slightly altered.

This scene between Lourdes and Sheryl plays out a total of thirty-eight times over the seventy-five minutes of “Best Life,” a play by Melisa Tien that is running at Jack through November 6.

The play is being promoted as Lourdes’ attempt to rewind the scene until Sheryl rethinks her misguided attitudes on race and class, and learns to treat people like Lourdes right.

But “Best Life” struck me as nowhere near that straightforward. It has little of the clarity of such similar works as the Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day” or the Oscar-winning short film “Two Distant Strangers,” in which a Black man named Carter keeps on trying to replay the scene of his confrontation with a police officer, but no matter what he does differently, he still winds up getting shot dead.

There are a few scenes in “Best Life,” especially the last one, that explicitly reveal Sheryl having learned some lessons. But much of the dialogue is so deliberately absurdist that we’re thrown off track.  Although Lourdes is the one who keeps on saying “Go back,” it’s not clear that she’s the one always in control and always trying to get Sheryl to change. Both characters continually alter their stories, without any evident purpose except to baffle the audience. Sometimes Lourdes tells Sheryl that she went home to take a shower because of the egg on her head, and saw a naked couple in her home; sometimes it’s not her home, but the couple’s, and she went in there because the door was unlocked; she herself is homeless. Sometimes Sheryl offers Lourdes her own shower, sometimes she says she has several showers, sometime she says she’s homeless too and has no showers. Other times, they talk about something completely different.  Sheryl says she has a rich husband, and an eight-year-old baby – who’s actually a boa constrictor they brought back in their pocket from Costa Rica.

I didn’t see a natural progression in these scenes, and despite director Susan Jaramillo’s effort to keep our attention from scene to scene by moving the actors around  to different tables and at different distances from one another, I failed to find enough variety and freshness in the scenes to justify the 75 minute length.  

It occurred to me that the key to what the playwright is doing may be in scene 15, when Lourdes tells Sheryl she’s frustrated because “people assume they know who I am, but they’re wrong, and I don’t know how to tell them there’s more to me than they imagine.”   The playwright  seems to be driving this point home by upending the audience’s assumptions and expectations about both characters, and indeed, by scrambling our understanding of what just happened — as if to say, you can never fully know a person, black or white.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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