Was it entrapment, racial profiling, some other nefarious mechanism of the system that landed jazz musician Bilal (Louis E. Davis) in the crosshairs of the FBI, and branded a terrorist conspirator? Idris Goodwin’s acclaimed Bars and Measures (★★★★☆), in a gripping Mosaic Theater production, metes out its clues and secrets with well-measured slowness, as Bilal, in solitary confinement, awaits his next court hearing.
He stays loose and lucid by practicing his bass in his head, his hands running up and down the imaginary fingerboard. We hear the music as he plays, while, behind him, light strips lacing the cracks in the concrete walls pulse in time to the tune.
His abject physical confinement and resilient creative mind are vividly captured in the blend of scenic design by Paige Hathaway, spry lighting by John D. Alexander, and original score by D.C.-based jazz musician and composer Kris Funn.
The music sparking Bilal’s mind is from his dream composition, an original piece he’s been practicing, then passing along to his classical pianist brother Eric (Joel Ashur) during their weekly visits in the jailhouse.
Goodwin’s play, told in non-linear sequence, was inspired by the real-life story of incarcerated jazz musician Tarik Shah and his brother Antoine Dowdell, whose visits inside a New York correctional facility were similarly filled with music-making.
Eric’s visits with Bilal — whom he persists in calling by his pre-convert name, Darryl — form the spine of the show. They drum and scat bars of Bilal’s composition, catch each other up on news of the case or of Eric’s potential romance with Sylvia (Lynette Rathnam), a vocalist he’s been rehearsing with, and clash constantly over their differences.
Their visiting room scenes, well-played by Davis and Ashur, are set with just a table and chairs, and the constant, mostly silent presence of prison guard Wes (Afsheen Misaghi) standing watch over the brothers’ every move. Misaghi pulls off the guard’s mix of stillness and alertness. He makes it clear, whether or not it appears that Wes is paying attention, he’s on top of every word, ever-ready to pounce on a raised voice or charged moment with authoritarian force.
The constant surveillance adds to the tension, and Davis and Ashur take care of the rest, setting the brother’s yin-yang, jazz vs. classical, Christian vs. Muslim disputes within a believable bed of sibling history, respect, and affectionate teasing. Their bonds are sorely tested, though, as further revelations expose aspects of Bilal’s case that might divide the brothers irrevocably.
Ashur does his best work showing Eric’s support for Bilal sour into suspicion, and harden into anger at the thought of betrayal. Davis, so grounded as Bilal, makes his prisoner steadfast but not without fear or doubt. Through his faith in music and Islam, he finds peace enough to endure. Through Davis’ performance, we can glimpse the reality of prisoners like the play’s inspiration Tarik Shah, and others ensnared in the post-9/11 crackdown on “suspicious” activities.
The play pointedly references how intensely, sometimes viciously, those in the Muslim community were targeted in those days. Perhaps too conveniently, Sylvia happens to be Muslim, and not too religious for flirty meetups with Eric, but secure enough in her faith and culture to defend Islam against any seeming hostility.
Rathnam and Ashur might overplay Sylvia and Eric’s unspoken attraction at first, but they find the right pitch for those moments of discord between them as the story develops. Rathnam is a little less convincing as Bilal’s trial lawyer, Fuber, but director Reginald L. Douglas keeps those courtroom scenes, and the entire play, humming at a briskly enjoyable pace. Bars and Measures is one of those rare productions that plays its final note before you’re ready for the song to end.
Bar and Measures runs through Feb. 26 in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $50-$64, with economy ticket options for each performance. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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