Mosaic Theatre opens its 2023 season with “Bars and Measures,” a multi-layered play that is thought-provoking and a must-see.
“Bars and Measures” is about brothers Bilal and Eric, both musicians, whose relationship becomes strained due to critical philosophical differences. Bilal is a jazz musician who is currently in prison. Eric is a classical pianist who has surrounded this brother with love before and during his incarceration. Mosaic’s artistic director Reginald L. Douglas is the play’s director, and Iris Goodwin is the playwright.
Eric, played by Joel Ashur, visits Bilal regularly. The dialog between the brothers is a continuous conversation– they always joke with each other and easily pick up from when they last talked. Jazz musician Bilal, played by Louis E. Gates, tries to get Eric beyond his classical music orientation by making him repeatedly recite a few jazz riffs. Even though Bilal is always on Eric’s case, the brothers support each other. Eric keeps Bilal’s spirits up by ensuring he knows their mother is on his side.
A revelation about how Bilal, a Muslim, ended up in prison causes a major conflict. Eric, a Christian, questions his understanding of his brother’s imprisonment. Thus, the double meanings of the words in the title of this play.
Ashur plays Eric as a no-questions-asked, supportive brother, who presents himself as slightly naive when details are fully revealed about Bilal’s criminal charges. Gates, as Bilal, is protective of his brother Eric, then has to come clean about why he may have been set up, which led to his arrest. Both actors make seamless turns in their emotions for each, where love may not concur at all.
Paige Hathaway created a minimalist set design with subtle indications of who each brother is and where they physically live their lives. In Eric’s apartment, prominently visible, is Bilal’s acoustic bass. The instrument gives the sense that Bilal is looking after his brother. The environment of the entire set is intimate, allowing the audience to feel all emotions between the characters.
“That was very intentional, beautiful, exciting and surprisingly nuanced,” Douglas said. “We’re depicting two Black brothers that we do not see enough on stage.”
Two additional characters that round out the ensemble are Afsheen Misaghi, as Wes, an antagonistic corrections officer watching over visits between the brothers, and Lynette Rathnam, as Sylvia, an unsure vocal student being coached by Eric. In side roles, Misaghi and Rathnam briefly take on different characters as opposing legal counsel.
The dialog flow in “Bars and Measure” comes from Goodwin’s pedigree as a “breakbeat” poet. The movement in his writing moves beautifully between the characters. Goodwin’s background includes being on HBO’s Def Poetry, Sesame Street, NPR, BBC radio and the Discovery Channel. He has been commissioned to produce a variety of works throughout his career. Goodwin is currently the artistic director at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.
“Idris is a poet of the hip-hop tradition, plus he is a playwright,” Douglas said. “He thinks critically about how to engage audiences of all ages and backgrounds in the theater. He gives honest depictions of Black life.”
A unique partnership between DC JazzFest adds to the presentation of “Bars and Measures.” Preceding the play, there is a 30-minute set where composer Kristopher Funn performs a solo bass set. The bass remains on the stage for most of the play. It is another character on the stage.
A lot is packed into the 80 minutes of “Bars and Measures,” which is at Mosaic Theatre until Feb. 26. Visit the website for performances and tickets at https://mosaictheater.org.