There are many stories about people who endure intense sometimes unimaginable suffering by escaping through their art. Art, after all, has the power to bring beauty even in the midst of that which has no hope of ever being beautiful. And that seems to be one of the major themes of Idris Goodwin’s new play “Bars and Measures”—how people can sustain their hopes and dreams despite facing a Sisyphean future.
…for the avid theatergoer, the music lover, the jazz aficionado, and those who just want to experience a night of thoughtful and provocative entertainment.
When the play opens, we find Bilal in prison and his brother Eric is visiting him. They’re both singing and scatting. Jazz is not only their music of choice, but it also appears to be the primary language that the brothers have between them—a deep love and appreciation for the art form inherited from their father. Jazz is their way of life. For Bilal in particular, jazz is also his sole means of survival in a prison system that tries to break him through prolonged periods of solitary confinement and what amounts to starvation.
The piece centers largely around the relationship between Eric and Bilal as they struggle to understand each other so that they can rediscover ways to love one another. Bilal (formerly Darryl) had given a substantial amount of money to a local mosque. Incensed with the treatment of Muslims, he sought some accessible way to have an impact. A series of circumstances lead to his arrest on terrorism charges. Eric, meanwhile, begins this play as something of the eternal optimist, at least where his brother is concerned. Holding a benefit concert to help Bilal’s cause, Eric ultimately must come face to face with the consequences of his enduring optimism, in more ways than one.
Mosaic Theater’s production of “Bars and Measures” does a tremendous job of spotlighting the fluidity of Goodwin’s words along with the power of the actors’ voices. Joel Ashur’s performance as Eric vacillates between the naïve kid brother who needs to grow up and the enlightened man who’s seen into truths of which he never asked to be a part. His transformation in this play is extraordinary. It is, however, Louis E. Davis’ Bilal who consumes the spotlight. He powerfully puts the challenges that haunt him, given the America he lives in, front and center, while also doing a spectacular job of depicting the artistic drive, the inherent musical soul, and the ever-abiding hope of the character. It is truly a memorable performance. The versatility of Lynette Rathnam, as both Eric’s potential love interest and Bilal’s attorney, is so much fun to watch. Afsheen Misaghi, who also plays multiple parts as the prison guard, Sadeem, and the prosecuting attorney, helps round out what is a thoroughly enjoyable cast—this group of actors is definitely a coup for Mosaic.
Reginald L. Douglas, Mosaic’s artistic director, takes the reins for this one. His direction lends another layer of music to the play and wonderfully realizes the full symphony that Goodwin’s script has the potential to be. Paige Hathaway’s scenic design creates an ambiance truly reflective of the loneliness Bilal must be experiencing in prison. This loneliness consequently carries over into Eric’s section of the set: the room housing his piano—unaccompanied, given the absence of his brother. Lighting by John D. Alexander and sound design by David Lamont Wilson are also key players in this production. The experience would certainly not be the same without the fullness you get when all elements come together as beautifully as they do here. “Bars and Measures” is for the avid theatergoer, the music lover, the jazz aficionado, and those who just want to experience a night of thoughtful and provocative entertainment.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
“Bars and Measures” will run through February 26, 2023 at Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here. Masks are still required in performance spaces and theaters.