Reginald L. Douglas’ directorial debut as Mosaic Theater artistic director pitches us into a fraught conflict between two brothers. Eric and Darryl Hutchins are devoted to each other, and to music. Their father, who works for the government, exposes them to jazz and his beloved bee-bop. Eric, the younger brother (Joel Ashur), becomes a classical pianist, and Darryl (Louis E. Davis) falls in love with jazz, which he considers the Black man’s classical tradition. Along the way, Darryl, a “rough dude” who never runs away from a fight, changes his name to Bilal Shabazz and converts to Islam, which he considers the Black man’s true religion.
When we meet the two brothers, the unthinkable has happened. Bilal is in jail, awaiting trial on terrorism charges. In a prison rec room, he is scatting with Eric, coaching him for a benefit concert that Eric is planning on his brother’s behalf. We see and feel their bond. We are about to learn what tragedy comes between them.
Bars and Measures, by celebrated playwright Idris Goodwin (And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, How We Get On, and Hype Man: A Break Beat Play) was inspired by a 2007 New York Times story about a jazz bassist and martial arts expert, Tariq Shah. After an undercover investigation, Shah pleaded guilty to plotting to teach his combat skills to al Qaeda candidates. According to the Times:
Even while imprisoned and awaiting trial, Mr. Shah, who grew up listening to Cannonball Adderley records, continued to practice his music. He and his brother, Antoine Dowdell, a jazz pianist, would sometimes sing and scat in an isolated visiting area of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan.
Joel Ashur as Eric and Louis E. Davis as Bilal create a beautifully nuanced relationship that is mesmerizing from start to finish. At first, there is a classic big-brother/little-brother dynamic as jazz bassist Bilal pushes Eric to get the “swing” of jazz.
BILAL: This is where the players play and the serious listeners listen. Intimate, so people can watch close. Your fingers. See how you putting it down. No place for the fake.
Eric is rehearsing with a Muslim American classical vocalist, Sylvia (Lynette Rathnam). She notices Bilal’s bass, which Eric is keeping for him. It has the Arabic inscription “To each of you God has prescribed a law and a way.” Sylvia, in Rathnam’s fine performance, brings a touch of romance and a different perspective on what it means to be Muslim.
In flashbacks, we learn more about the tension between the brothers, and what led to Bilal’s arrest. Bilal was interacting, without his knowledge, with an FBI informer. “The brothers will get me out,” Bilal says to Eric. Eric’s response is telling: “I’m your brother!”
Playwright Goodwin comments, in an interview with Psalmayene 24 (Mosaic’s Andrew W. Mellon Playwright-in-Residence),
I read a news article about two men, brothers, the one plays classical, the other plays jazz, and they get together in the rec room of a prison and trade lines. There was this whole story behind how the brother in prison was arrested, how he got himself in that situation….it opened up this world of research around post 9/11 Patriot Act-era stings [the government] was doing in predominantly Black, Islamic communities.
In a particularly effective trial scene, we see the prosecutor Haines (Afsheen Misaghi) and Bilal’s defense lawyer Fuber (Lynette Rathnam) speak in tandem in overlapping arguments. The issue: Bilal’s financial contributions to an extremist group. To Haines, Bilal is a calculated and dangerous man at war with his own country. To Fuber, Bilal is a man in great conflict, who has been unfairly entrapped. He deserves the freedom to air his grievances and support controversial organizations.
At one striking moment, the court plays a recording of Bilal taking an oath of loyalty to the path of jihad. The following exchange ensues:
FUBER: This recording might prove that Mr. Shabazz is perhaps an extremist. No more so than any right-wing gun-toting secessionist. The question is whether Mr. Shabazz engaged in a conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.
HAINES: No right-wing gun-toting secessionist has openly pledged himself to be at war on America.
At the performance I saw, that line got quite a few laughs.
Will the two brothers resolve their differences? Or are some differences unresolvable? These are the key questions that drive the plot. Anyone who has seen a family member or a friend change, and wondered, “Who is this person?” can understand the potential heartbreak such conflicts can cause. In this divisive time, such questions have become ever more salient.
Well-known DC composer Kristofer Funn has written original music for the production, which is handsomely mounted and appealing in every respect. Costumes are by Moyenda Kulemeka, lighting design by John D. Alexander, scenic design by Paige Hathaway, and sound design by David Lamont Wilson.
This vibrant production is a resounding success.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Bars and Measures plays through February 26, 2023, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets ($29–$64), call the box office at 202-399-6764, or go online.
The program for Bars and Measures is online here.
Mosaic will open each performance with a pre-show jazz set in collaboration with the DC Jazz Festival. Kris Funn will serve as DC Jazz Festival Artist-in-Residence at Mosaic during the run of Bars and Measures, performing and curating solo musicians to spotlight the area’s rich and diverse jazz talent. Patrons can enjoy pre-show jazz sets before weekday evening and all weekend performances.
COVID Safety: Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.
Bars and Measures
By Idris Goodwin
Directed by Reginald L. Douglas
Eric: Joel Ashur
Bilal: Louis E. Davis
Wes/Sadeem/Haines: Afsheen Misaghi
Sylvia/Fuber: Lynette Rathnam
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway
Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander
Costume Designer: Moyenda Kulemeka
Sound Designer: David Lamont Wilson
Composer: Kristofer Funn
Props Designer: Deb Thomas
Fight & Intimacy Director: Sierra Young
Stage Manager: Shayna O’Neill