Tuesday, October 29, 2019

102 (2019-2020): Review: BARS AND MEASURES (seen October 28, 2019)

“When Brothers Clash”

Idris Goodwin’s promising but only fitfully satisfying play, Bars and Measures, at Urban Stages, following a 2015 world premiere in Sacramento, is only the latest about a fractious yet loving fraternal relationship. And, boy, as the older brother in a similarly problematic situation, do I know something about those.

Abraham Makany, Shabazz Green, Roderick Lawrence. All photos: Russ Rowland.
Every time I see a play about such pairings (think Yen or True West, for example), it strikes home, even if, as with Goodwin’s Bars and Measures they don’t always quite ring true. Goodwin’s title can be understood on at least two levels, neither having to do with drinking establishments. One hints at musical preoccupations, as represented by African-American brothers Eric (Roderick Lawrence) and Bilal (Shabazz Green), both professional musicians. Bars can also represent the jail in which Bilal has been confined, while measures might refer to how the brothers navigate their individual lives and their personal and artistic relationship.

Abraham Makany, Shabazz Green, Roderick Lawrence.
The plot is loosely based on the true story of Tarik Shah, a Muslim musician and martial arts expert who, targeted in a sting operation, was arrested on terrorism charges by the FBI in 2001, claimed entrapment, was held for 31 months in solitary, and released after 13 years.
Abraham Makany, Shabazz Green, Roderick Lawrence.
Bilal (known as “the shah”) is a well-established jazz bassist and martial arts expert, who’s played with the top names in the field. Eric (inspired by Shah’s brother, Antoine Dowdell) is a Juilliard-trained, classical pianist who plays at parties and the like. He also becomes the accompanist to Sylvia (Salma Shaw), an opera singer, who sings (nicely) a bit of “Caro Mio Ben,” but who also expresses an interest in jazz, Eventually, Eric lands a job teaching music at an elite private school, although you have to wonder how someone who says things like “We ain’t talk about no bunch of other ideas” would land such a position.

Much of the action takes place in the visitor’s room at Bilal’s jail, where, as the brothers sit across from each other at a table under the dour eye of a guard named Wes (Abraham Makany), they bicker and bond. The bonding mainly happens as they practice scat-singing a jazz routine composed by Bilal. The bickering concerns Bilal (originally Darryl) having converted to Islam, and to their musical tastes. Bilal tries to win the mildly hesitant Eric over to jazz, even giving him exercises to help prepare him for an upcoming concert, where he’ll be raising money for Bilal’s defense.

And just what does he need a defense for? Since the playwright takes more than half his play to tell us why Bilal has been incarcerated, put in solitary, and treated harshly, let’s just say it has do with reasons reflective of those that led to Tarik Shah’s arrest and conviction. Had this been the focus of the Bars and Measures, without all the musical fiddle-faddle, it might have led to a more compelling work of drama.
Shabazz Green, Salma Shaw, Roderick Lawrence.
Among the outstanding moments is a courtroom scene involving the prosecutor (Makany) and the defense lawyer (Shaw) that crosscuts their dialog in an effectively contrapuntal way. The play also includes several well-done musical passages, including Lawrence demonstrating his piano skills and Shaw her vocal ones. A tentatively romantic scene plays out elegantly as Eric and Sylvia slow-dance to a recording of “Blue Gardenia.” But there’s also a superb, moody, background score, composed by Justin Ellington, one of New York’s finest composers of incidental theatre music.

Bars and Measures includes several interesting developments but it also has questionable contrivances (like Sylvia’s being a secular Muslim, or Bilal’s violence just before he goes to trial). Since all the scenes are in the same neutral, gray-walled space (designed by Frank Oliva and effectively lit by John Salutz), Goodwin’s dependence on expository flashbacks could be made clearer, perhaps via timeline projections. And having Eric suddenly break the fourth wall to speak in direct address should be rethought or introduced earlier to set up the convention as a framing device.
Shabazz Green, Roderick Lewis.
It also takes too long for Bilal’s crime to be explained, draining the play of suspense. When the crime becomes the central issue of the play’s latter third, within which Bilal gets to expound a litany of alleged anti-Muslim incidents, it creates a lopsided balance in the dramatic structure.
Roderick Lawrence, Shabazz Green. 
The direction is also problematic. Kristan Seemel gets acceptably believable performances from her first-rate cast (although the appealing Lawrence sometimes swallows words), but her pacing is sluggish and she fails to draw out the necessary degree of frustrated tension. Without it, the brothers’ simmering relationship (aside from a few minor flareups) never fully ignites the subtext’s simmering flames.

Seemel’s production elicits perhaps half of the emotion possible in this fraternal and political environment. I suspect that there’s a lot more passion in Bars and Measures than this too measured production is conveying.

Urban Stages
259 W. 30th St., NYC
Through November 10