The Jungle Theater is showcasing playwright Idris Goodwin in his Twin Cities debut with his play Bars and Measures. The title refers to a passion for music shared by two brothers, one who is barred from it while in prison. Under the direction of Obie award-winning and Tony-nominated director Marion Clinton, the play is also a study of estrangement when one brother converts to Islam and becomes radicalized. The play is based on a true story about two musicians that appeared in the New York Times.
The two brothers are Bilal (Ansa Akyea) and Eric (Darius Dotch). The play opens with Eric visiting Bilal in a prison. Eric is living a comfortable life as a classic pianist and music teacher at an upper class high school; before his arrest, Bilal was a jazz master on the bass who played at clubs and events around the city. Visitation rights don’t allow for musical instruments, so Bilal teaches jazz to Eric using vocal scat whenever he visits jail.
As it turns out, Bilal was arrested on charges of aiding a terrorist group in the aftermath of 9/11, charges that he strenuously denies at the top of the show. Bilal convinces Eric that he was innocently donating money to a religious group and was wrongly arrested by the U.S. federal government. Eric organizes a jazz fundraiser to pay Bilal’s legal fees and uses his own money to pay for his attorney. However, the brothers’ relationship is severely damaged by what Eric learns at Bilal’s trial.
The premise of the show is intriguing, but the play often lacks real drama. Intellectually, Eric talks about his brother, but there is not a lot in the play that conveys this brotherly bond on any real emotional level – there is far more telling than showing. Their scatting back and forth starts as a unique, interesting element, but with a lack of variety this becomes mundane after it fails to move the story forward. Eric’s violent reaction to events and spurning his girlfriend in response to his brother’s betrayal just does not ring true. Bilal, who reportedly has difficulty controlling his anger, seems to be more reserved.
Taous Claire Khazem plays both Eric’s soloist girlfriend and Bihal’s attorney. Maxwell Collyard plays the prison guard, a reporter and the prosecutor. Both actors give their best performance during the trial scene in which each attorney’s rapid fire shoutouts provide some real action and ultimately reveals the truth about Bilal’s crime; this scene was an audience favorite in talkbacks.
Andrea Heilman’s set functions well as a prison, Eric’s apartment, and a courtroom, with the neon lighting in the background setting the play’s tragic tone. Michael Wangen’s lighting design allows for smooth transitions between the juxtaposed scenes. The original jazz music by Justin Ellington at the end was a delight, but it also underscored how this show might have benefited from more jazz interweaved throughout the show – jazz that was sung and played, and not just talked about.
Goodwin’s play raises some provocative questions about our nation’s treatment of Muslims, but unfortunately the play often comes off as a diatribe rather than as drama.
Bars and Measures plays through October 9 at the Jungle Theater.