Melisa Tien’s Best Life was scheduled to premiere at Brooklyn’s JACK in March 2020 (a sentence I suspect I will be writing a lot in the remaining months of 2021). And JACK, an intentionally community-centered theater whose mission is “to fuel experiments in art and activism,” and to connect neighbors through both performances and “conversations on issues of importance,” feels like the perfect place to host this play, which could easily be set at a coffee shop in its own rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Best Life is about that exact spot where the historical forces of injustice in America meet the individual capabilities of a single person–a single wealthy white person and a single struggling Black person, in particular–to intervene against those forces, and the border of the neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, well, pretty much is a perfect metonym for that spot. (Deb O’s set of lovingly distressed tables mixed with vintage textiles certainly mirrors a particular hipster Brooklyn aesthetic.) I don’t of course know if Tien rewrote her script over the past eighteen months, but its content certainly hits with utterly timely resonance now, after the racial reckonings of 2020, in the midst of moral panics about reparations and justice and how we tell and teach American history, as we claw, unequally, out of the recession triggered by the pandemic.
Two women are the only occupants of a coffee shop: Cheryl (Erin Anderson), white, imperious, liberally adorned with signifiers of a particular kind of self-congratulatory privilege (large diamond on her engagement finger; designer handbag that if I clocked it correctly is from primo status brand Telfar Clemens; floral dress that evokes, but definitely isn’t, a vintage housedress from a thrift shop–Alicia Austin nails her, costume-wise), and Lourdes (Cherrye J. Davis), Black, on edge, toting around the kind of big plaid woven-plastic shopping bag available at every 99 cent store. Cheryl needs sugar in the raw, “the kind in the brown package,” and can get no attention from the cafe staff. Lourdes needs a safe place to take a shower. She hadn’t had one in four days and then, this morning, she says, “An egg fell on my head” in this very cafe.
Cheryl has seemingly all the advantage here, but Lourdes has one ace up her sleeve: she can “go back,” reset a scene and jump back in time–but only for five minutes or less. She can redirect a conversation, rework her approach to a momentary interaction, and the whole action of the play is her trying, over and over, to rework a conversation with Cheryl into a shape where Cheryl’s vague good intentions and inchoate generosity can do Lourdes any practical good. (In almost all of the iterations, Cheryl remains a wealthy white woman with a problematic marriage, but sometimes the divergences are greater: sometimes he’s actively violent; one or two times, she’s living in a shelter herself.)
Cheryl mentions a guest room, for example, which she blithely, without even noticing, offers to Lourdes to stay as long as she likes, and then doesn’t remember she’s done it when Lourdes tries to take her up on the offer. (Davis gives Lourdes a steely control that doesn’t entirely hide her vulnerability, especially in moments like this where she sees a glimmer of hope.) As long as they’re talking in generalities, Cheryl is warm and generous, calling Lourdes her “sister from another mister,” trying to ally with her on feminist causes; Anderson nails the mixture of real warmth, arrogant naïveté, and ruthlessness in Cheryl. She’s prepared to make a small gesture, not take any genuine risks with her life. (In all the iterations, it’s Cheryl who claims an intimacy with Lourdes, not the other way around, even while misremembering her name as “Laura” on a semi-regular basis.) Susana Jaramillo’s staging constantly moves the two among the various table groupings in the cafe, with body language instantly conveying the tone of each repeat: Are they close together or far apart this time? Both sitting or one standing? As things start to get stranger, furniture starts to be used in unusual ways–couches for standing on; tables for sitting on rather than at.
The metaphors aren’t subtle here—Tien starts with a broken egg and ends with a dead bird that signifies Cheryl literally choking on her own white tears. And the play is trying to hit a tricky balance of comedy, allegory, and polemic, funny and despairing at once. But what sticks for me is how damn hard Lourdes is trying—to survive, yes, but also to keep giving Cheryl more chances to make it right, while experience has taught her that it’s a losing battle. The reiterations give Lourdes more chances to go back to the hard questions at the root. Can she ask something of a white stranger and expect to receive it? Can she ask something hard of Cheryl and have any hope of a brave response? Is there any hope of an honest friendship here?
Two anecdotes recur in multiple iterations: one told by Lourdes and one by Cheryl, both about being placed in a vulnerable and abject position. In search of a shower, Lourdes enters an unlocked apartment and encounters two people there–sometimes they’re making love, sometimes they’re fighting, but in all cases, the presence of the other is a wrenching intrusion into a private moment. Cheryl accidentally throws away a brand-new cellphone and climbs into a dumpster to retrieve it, coming into contact with rot and filth, or sometimes a man sleeping among it. There is something real in their connection that allows them to slowly, incrementally reveal that vulnerability, but there’s also a giant gulf between the circumstances that led each to that specific place.
Lourdes’s power is never explained, it’s never justified, and most important, on its most successful revision, it inches her only the tiniest increment toward her “best life.” Cheryl wants not to be part of the problem; wants to cough up her shame and her guilt…but in the end, somehow, Lourdes ends up catering to her needs, again. Under it all, the play acts as a searing indictment of the idea that individual choices and actions—even if Cheryl were to rise to Lourdes’s provocation and give up all her money; even if one of the individuals literally has magic powers—can ultimately move the dial on social inequality. Lourdes asks Sheryl, “Do you ever ask yourself why isn’t everyone living their best life?” Sheryl’s answer: “Not in those exact words.”