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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Bars and Measures
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Big Lowdown, Trust, DAI (enough), The Drowsy Chaperone and Donald Giovanni in Cornlandia: A Picnic Operetta


Darius Dotch and Ansa Akyea
Photo by Dan Norman
How tautly can the bonds between brothers be stretched without breaking? This question is at the core of Bars and Measures, a gripping play by Idris Goodwin, currently being presented by Jungle Theater in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere production. Under Marion McClinton's taut direction, it is a gripping work that seeks answers in primal feelings—feelings of family loyalty, of faith in higher power and principle, and in the ecstatic release of creating art, in this case, music.

Bars and Measures is the story of two African-American bothers, Eric and Bilal. Eric, the younger brother, is a Christian—not highly devout, but comfortable with having been "raised in the church." Older brother Bilal has converted to Islam, being swayed by a believer who told him it is the "true religion of the black man." One thing Eric and Bilal have in common is a deep love of music. Even this, however, separates as much as unites them, as Eric is a successful classical pianist, while Bilal was a top-drawer jazz bass player, sitting in with a who's who of jazz artists. However, as Bars and Measures opens, Bilal is in prison, charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization. He has been in solitary confinement for a year as he awaits trial, without access to instruments or even a radio.

What Bilal does have, to furnish himself with musical sustenance, is his brother's belief in him and a unique musical partnership, where every two weeks Eric visits Bilal and they verbally scat and create riffs, Bilal teaching Eric the fundamentals of jazz, coaching him to listen to recordings by the greats, at one point stating that to play jazz, Eric needs to learn to make a single note swing. In between these visits, which are supervised by a stone-faced guard named Wes, Bilal creates compositions in his head. His aim is to pass these on to Eric, for Eric to play, and thereby keep his music in live. In return, the music keeps Bilal alive, at least keeps his spirits and hope afloat as he awaits trial.

Eric plans to perform his brother's compositions, written behind bars, at a defense fund benefit concert. He has already hired a lawyer whose strategy is to prove that Bilal was entrapped, has done no harm, and is being made a scapegoat. The truth of what actually happened is open to interpretation, as truth often is. The resolution of this question becomes the background on which both the musical partnership and brotherly love between the two men play out. Eric also encounters Sylvia, a classical vocalist for whom he provides piano accompaniment, and for whom he may or may not have feelings. Adding to the dynamics is the fact that Sylvia has an Islamic background, though she is non-practicing, which gives her some insight into what Bilal is going through.

Bars and Measures plays in a brisk 80 minutes, with a steady rise in tension, as what begins as untarnished fraternal love and complete confidence in Bilal's pending vindication and release spirals into layers of uncertainty, both in terms of truth and feelings. At its center is the court scene, played out with surrealistic bombast as the prosecuting and defense attorneys speak in overlapping sound bites, phrases we hear over and over on the media, which come to mean nothing, with a background of mirrors and harsh lighting reinforcing the notion that the administration of justice is hard to watch.

The play is based on the true story of brothers Tarik Shah and Antoine Dowdell, both musicians from a middle-class family. Believing he could not beat the charges, in spite of the entrapment argument, Tarik pled guilty at his 2007 trial. He was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison and is scheduled for release in June, 2018. In writing the play, Idris changed the brothers' names, and with that had liberty to alter circumstances, invent incidents, and speculate on outcomes.

The two actors who play Eric and Bilal are both highly esteemed: Darius Dotch and Ansa Akyea, respectively. Here, with a nod to McClinton's directorial hand, not only do they each give a powerful performance, but they play off one another in harmony that attests to innate understanding between brothers as well as the give and take of ideas and feelings that pass between musicians. They also play very well the big brother-younger brother dynamic, with the older Bilal seeming to feel entitled to set the terms of engagement (the real life Tarik Shah was the younger brother—one of the liberties taken by playwright Goodwin). Dotch and Akyea both give terrific performances, but it is fair to say that each makes the other even better.

Dotch covers more ground, as Eric is the conduit between Bilal and the outside world. It is Eric who deals with their sorrow-laden mother, with Bilal's fellow musicians, who arranges the fund raiser on Bilal's behalf ... and so he must totter between these worlds. Dotch plays the role sublimely. For his part, Akyea fully embodies the strength faith gives Bilal—faith in his religion and in his music. Akyea makes visible Bilal's silent struggle to maintain his equilibrium in an oppressive environment.

Taous Claire Khazem plays Sylvia, as well as Bilal's attorney, and offers a confident presence that makes her points with clarity. Maxwell Collyard is effective as the unemotive guard who manages an occasional quip, and also plays the prosecuting attorney and an iman from Bilal's mosque.

A strong contributor to the powerful impact of Bars and Measures is composer Justin Ellington's original jazz pieces. The beauty and complexity of the music underscores the wealth of Bilal's inner life. Ellington also serves as the production's sound designer. Together with Andrea Heilman's evocative set—the stark prison visitor room on one side, Eric's contemporary-styled apartment, complete with hardwood floors and grand piano, on the other, and Michael Wangen's lighting design, the look and sound of the production add to the momentum of its narrative. Trevor Bowen's costumes also serve well, with Bilal's prison jumpsuits contrasted with Eric's conservative academic garb.

Bars and Measures gives its audience a great deal to think about: issues of loyalty, of justice, of faith ascend from the production. It is particularly relevant in this year when the imprisonment of such a large percentage of African-American men, and the frustrations and fears raised by continued terroristic threats, both weigh heavily on our national consciousness. With two outstanding lead performances and a sterling production, Jungle Theatre gives us a work that engages in the theater and lingers long afterward in the heart and mind.

Bars and Measures continues at the Jungle Theater through October 9, 2016, at 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $35.00 - $48.00, Senior (60+) discount - $5.00 off per ticket, Public Rush - $10.00 off, Student Rush (with valid ID) half price. For more information and tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com. For group sales call 612-278-0147. For more information about the National New Play Network, visit nnpn.org.

Written by Idris Goodwin; Director: Marion McClinton; Original Music and Sound Design: Justin Ellington; Scenic Design: Andrea Heilman; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Fight Choreographer: Heidi Batz Rogers; Associate Director: E.G. Bailey; Technical Director: John Stillwell; Production Manager: Sara Shives

Cast: Ansa Akyea (Bilal), Maxwell Collyard (Wes, and others), Darius Dotch (Eric), Taous Claire Khazem (Sylvia, and others).


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