Behind Bars, Desperate Measures

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Theater Review: ‘Bars and Measures’ at the Jungle Theater

By Colleen Steppa, Theater Reviewer (Photo courtesy of Jungle Theater)

A story of brotherhoods that conflict and converge, Idris Goodwin’s Bars and Measures takes us to that space between close family members who need each other most, yet cut each other the deepest. Eric, ever-dressed in a 1930’s-style 3-piece suit, introduces us to his “two brothers” – Darryl he grew up with, and Bilaal who Darryl became after converting to Islam. Little brother tries to make his own way while living in big brother’s shadow, cleans up his messes and admires him all the same.

Eric (Darius Dotch) and Bilaal (Ansa Akyea) open the scene as they meet through partitioned glass and hum each other measures of jazz compositions, bickering in a friendly way that often crosses over into real argument as brothers do. Both love music, one trained classical while the other improvises jazz, both stand on opposite ends of religious divide and opposite sides of a glass partition when they talk during prison visits. At one visit, Bilaal claims Eric would put “rims on your Yaris,” Eric retorts that Bilaal would drive a “mosque-mobile,” and the exchange ends with a fist bump on either side of the glass.

Eric explains his big brother carries a chaotic, violent tendency throughout his life – first martial arts, then jazz, conversion to Islam, involvement with a local terror cell, and eventual imprisonment.  “It doesn’t matter how many suits you wear,” he tells Bilaal in one powerful scene, “you’re the destroyer.”

It becomes clear that Darryl’s conversion to become Bilaal has shaken the family, and identity questions loom heavy in the air during their visits. Retelling how he fundraised for his brother’s legal defense, Eric stands and commands attention to an invisible crowd with a preacherlike call-and-response, just like the church they went to when they were kids. When Bilaal defends that he was only helping “his brothers” by donating money to the local mosque, Eric exclaims “I’m your brother!”

This brotherly conflict also comments on the nature of ongoing religious violence, racial tensions between black men and police, and prison maltreatment. When Bilaal goes to trial and it’s lights up in the courtroom, his chorus of “yes, no, yes” is backdropped with mirrors reminiscent of interrogation, the theater is stark and abruptly bright. Eric wonders about his brother’s life trajectory, a boy with a violent streak growing up in a rough neighborhood, and guesses “Darryl would have ended up here years ago.” Bilaal’s final courtroom statement on the repeated attacks against Muslims in the wake of terrorist acts reminds us of police brutality and retaliation, cycles of violence that seem to have no end.

Just as Christianity and Islam are brother religions, converged from one root and both in agreement and at odds, classical and jazz are both influenced by and opposed to the other. Eric and Bilaal are inseparable, yet constantly fight with one another because they remain simultaneously attracted and repelled to the similarities and differences between them. Magnets cannot occupy the same space without conflict nor can they fully separate. Bilaal pleads with Eric that he cannot live without the music, he cannot live without his brother who creates and destroys his art.

Bars and Measures is directed by Marion McClinton, with music by Justin Ellington, who composed for the Guthrie’s recent production of Trouble in Mind.  It also stars Maxwell Collyard and Taous Khazem.

Tickets

Bars and Measures thru October 9
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South
612.822.7063 or jungletheater.com

 

Box-Steppa

 

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