Idris Goodwin’s lyrical new play “Bars and Measures” integrates music so deeply into structure it might well be a musical. The often-compelling, sometimes-wanting world premiere at B Street Theatre features dazzling performances from lead actors Jahi Kearse and Darian Duncan, inventive staging from director Jenny Koons and persuasive music from composer Noah Agruss. The carefully structured plot develops through studied nuance, but there is so much offsetting balance in the polemic story that an earnest flatness undercuts the play’s rough promise.
Kearse and Duncan play brothers Bilal and Eric, similar in that they are both accomplished musicians, different in that one plays jazz and the other classical. The other crucial difference is that bass-playing Bilal sits incarcerated in a prison cell awaiting trial on mysterious charges, while classically trained pianist Eric lives free in the world making music for a living. Set in an unanmed city in 2005, Goodwin re-creates a specifically uncomfortable post-9/11 era in America, especially for Bilal, a converted Muslim whose religion becomes a focus of the narrative.
We first meet the brothers in Bilal’s cell, scat-singing a song Bilal has been teaching Eric. There’s little compromise or sympathy in Bilal’s stern taskmaster, and Eric desperately tries to please his older brother. The tension and exaltation in the musical sequences between them are the play’s most effective elements. Director Koons and the actors create a tactile familiarity throughout as the narrative point of view subtly alters visually and thematically.
Samantha Reno designed the smartly malleable set and Stephen Jones designed the stark intimate lighting.
Bilal focuses on the differences between jazz as improvised African rhythm-based interactive playing and classical as a European, straitjacketed, score-driven performance. It’s a superficial observation, of course, because anyone who’s listened much to either genre knows jazz can be performed by droning technical rote and the best classical performances contain boundless emotion and personality. Still there’s a welcome authenticity about the music in Goodwin’s dialogue, Kearse and Duncan’s performances, and Agruss’ compositions.
Jazmine Ramay brings a sensual vitality to Sylvia, a singer Eric is working with on a classical recital. Their mutual attraction gets complicated through Eric’s changing reaction to his brother’s status and Sylvia’s own Muslim identity. Jimmy Sidhu adds quiet menace as a prison guard. He also plays a figure from Bilal’s mosque and Ramay, Bilal’s lawyer.
Much of the play’s ethos lies in the contrasting duality of the brothers exemplified by their musical personae. Bilal gets continually pushed into focus but Eric less so. It’s as if Goodwin assumes we already know Eric, but Bilal’s alleged actions need explanation or at least context. Bilal’s situation is neither simple nor clear-cut and Eric’s reactions are equally complex but understandable. All that equivocation evens out the drama in this engaging production.
BARS AND MEASURES
What: World premiere of a B Street Theatre-commissioned play by Idris Goodwin, directed by Jenny Koons.
When: Continues through Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Cost: $15-$35, $5 student rush
Information: 916-443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org
Time: 90 minutes with no intermission