A local actor takes on challenging roles, and tells of the tough journey to where he is today.
By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times
Local actor Oscar Best endured a hard road to Malibu, and to his fledgling career, but his experiences have enriched his view of life and his ability to portray strong characters. When The Malibu Times reached Best last week, he was rehearsing for an upcoming Malibu Stage Company play, “The Wild,” even as he was due to perform in MSC’s current production, “A Soldier’s Play,” that evening. In this local version of Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning military drama directed by Graeme Clifford, Best tackles his first lead role.
In “A Soldier’s Play,” Best plays Capt. Richard Davenport, an African-American Army officer dispatched to an Army base to investigate the murder of a black sergeant amid racial tensions.
On stage, the towering Best exudes a charismatic presence and effectively carries several soliloquies on his broad shoulders in a cast that includes two fellow Malibu residents, Nick Stabile (Capt. Taylor) and Michael Fuller (Lt. Byrd). Obba Babatunde, as the murdered Sgt. Waters (who appears in flashback), also stars in the piece.
“It’s very tough, but really interesting and challenging,” Best said of juggling both plays.
The road that led Best to where he is today has been filled with personal challenges for the actor.
Best was born in Warrington, N.C., and raised in Colorado Springs at Fort Carson.
“I was an Army brat,” Best said, which helped him with his role in “A Soldier’s Play.”
From 1981 to 1991, he lived in Manhattan, where he performed as a member of the Dance Theater of Harlem. In 1986, Best hit a rough patch. He wrestled with alcohol and drug addiction and, for two and a half years, he was homeless.
However, with the help of friends, churches and shelters, Best rebounded and relocated to California. He resided in Bellflower, Long Beach, San Diego and Santa Monica before moving in 2005 to Malibu where he works as a personal trainer at Malibu Health Club.
In 2006, Clifford cast Best in the one-act play’ “The Ghost and Josh Gibson.”
“That was my first experience,” Best said of Robert Ahola’s Negro League piece.
“Josh Gibson” led to another MSC role in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Now, once again with Clifford, Best reaches a first with his lead role. Best landed the part after MSC’s artistic director Rick Johnson saw him perform a scene from “A Soldier’s Play” in a study class. Best auditioned for Clifford by performing Davenport’s introductory monologue.
“I knew Oscar’s strengths and weaknesses firsthand, and felt comfortable that, with considerable concentrated work, he could step up to the plate, as Josh Gibson had done,” Clifford said.
Best said of the director, “You’ll learn a lot working with him as far as how other people see the character. He’s a consummate professional. He wants to portray what the author has written: ‘Don’t paraphrase here.’”
As to working with Obba Batunde, Best exuded his excitement in working the veteran actor.
“Oh, god! Working with Obba is like working in an old shoe store and you have this guy who has been making shoes for years and shows you where the stitching needs to be done and how to make the sole,” he said. “We’re having a master class doing this play. The most interesting time is when we go back to the dressing room. As tired as we were on stage, everyone is huddled around him, listening to his stories. He’s a special guy, period. He’s enlightened every one of us . There’s no way this production would be anything without Obba, no way!”
Best said feels blessed to live in Malibu, where he has befriended a few fellow actors. It was Malibuite Dick Van Dyke who first noticed Best as Josh Gibson. The “Mary Poppins’“ actor helped Best score small parts (as a nurse and as a detective) on two episodes of “Murder 101” on the Hallmark Channel.
“[Those episodes] got me my S.A.G. card,” said Best, who is among the actors who joins Van Dyke every Thanksgiving to serve holiday meals to the homeless. “Dick is actually who you see. That’s really him.”
Another veteran the actor calls a friend succinctly summed up Best’s journey.
“Lou Gossett would tell me, “You’ve come a long way from a cardboard box in Central Park,” Best recalled, laughing.
“Oscar has a natural talent and presence on the stage, which, despite his relative inexperience, allows him to create formidable characters who can stand their ground with the best of them,” Clifford said. “He also understands that, at the heart of any success, is a strong work ethic, and he is committed to succeed in this new field he has chosen for himself. I am happy and proud to have played a part in getting him started.”
Best begins Julia Holland’s “The Wild” in late October. While he loves the theater, he’s also interested in doing film.
“Film is more intimate,” Best said. “There’s a different art of doing it. [Van Dyke] gave me Michael Caine’s [acting instructional tape] about being intimate with the camera. The camera is the best truth serum you have. It has to be happening inside.”
In the meantime, when he’s not on stage, Best enjoys Malibu’s small-town feel.
“The neighborhood is so clean and so healthy,” he said. “I love hiking. For a while, I rode a bike up and down PCH.
“The best time is when I’d sit on the patio and see the dolphins,” he continued. “I’m so lucky to live here. I’m living where millions of people come on vacation.”
“A Soldier’s Play” continues through Oct. 17. More information can be found online at MalibuStageCompany.org