Bars And Measures at the Jungle Theater

Darius Dotch and Ansa Akyea in Bars And Measures.

Darius Dotch and Ansa Akyea in Bars And Measures.

In the Jungle Theater‘s Bars and Measures, we are introduced to brothers Eric and Bilal as they bounce jazz notes off one another, establishing an immediate sense of familiarity, as well as joy and energy between these two men. Yet, these notes are not delivered via their beloved instruments, Eric’s piano and Bilal’s bass, but rather sung as unaccompanied scat as such instruments are not permitted in the prison visitation space they occupy.

Such impassioned music provides a stark juxtaposition to a sterile prison setting where Bilal, an adult convert to Islam, is behind bars for alleged ties to extremist activities. As he consistently defends his innocence, the show focuses primarily on how Eric, his younger brother, comes to understand his brother’s motivations and connect with him despite his circumstances through their shared passion for jazz.

Bars and Measures is a new work from playwright Idris Goodwin, premiering at the Jungle (and playing through October 9th) as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere initiative. This program partners with theaters across the nation to premiere plays in multiple spaces, allowing them to be interpreted through varied artistic lenses.

Taking the helm of this particular rendition is director Marion McClinton who lends the show a sleek design and bold compositions, but struggles to imbue the plot with the right energy or pace. Within the show the brothers discuss how great jazz musicians can utilize a single note to make something enthralling – a feat this production doesn’t quite achieve. The show’s characters carry the same tone and tenor throughout, and the proceedings sometimes grow flat.

That is not to say that Bars and Measures does not have its strengths. Darius Dotch (Eric) and Ansa Akyea (Bilal) are both excellent and share a real chemistry. The show’s design is also striking–the set and lighting cleanly and dynamically define spaces as well as the physical and interpersonal barriers between characters, and the sound design astutely underlines emotion by fluidly incorporating fitting original compositions (by Justin Ellington).

Yet, such assets ultimately cannot overcome the uneven script, which too often relies on stilted monologue to establish themes and beats the drum of such topics as societal prejudices and government surveillance in a disappointingly generic manner. Additionally, some of the play’s aspects feel superfluous, with whole subplots established and hastily discarded with little impact. It is no wonder that Taous Claire Khazem’s turn as Sylvia, Eric’s newfound musical muse, entirely lacks definition, and it is sad to see Maxwell Collyard relegated to caricature in a string of bit roles.

There is a lot of intrigue in the real-life story of brothers separated by bars and worldviews that inspired this show, but Goodwin’s script never finds its heart. The explorations of political ideology and societal injustice are cursory and the relationships outside the compelling central dynamic between brothers only muddy the themes and provide disunity instead of harmony. At only 80 minutes, the broad scope of Bars and Measures results in the core narrative being underserved and underdeveloped.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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