Bars and Measures
Bars and Measures: Brothers Eric (Joel Ashur) and Bilal (Louis E. Davis) meet in the visitation room of a correctional facility while Bilal awaits trial. Guard Wes (Afsheen Misaghi) stands in the background. Credit: Chris Banks

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Truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes it’s hammier, too. Idris Goodwin’s musical drama Bars and Measures, now in its regional premiere with Mosaic Theater Company, is derived from a real-life scenario you’d reject if a playwright invented it: In 2005, the FBI arrested Bronx-born jazz bassist Tarik Shah—also an advanced martial artist—for plotting to teach hand-to-hand fighting to would-be al-Qaida recruits in the United States. Shah pleaded his innocence, but after 31 months in solitary confinement, he accepted a plea deal that kept him in prison until 2018. 

During those years in solitary, Shah received biweekly supervised visits from his older brother, pianist Antoine Dowdell, when the two men would discuss musical theory and hum passages of melody to one another. Though Shah had no access to instruments in prison, he would write down chord progressions and other bits of musical notation to share during their visits. Dowdell said these sessions with his incarcerated brother were making him a stronger musician: “It’s like [Shah] is teaching me what he can no longer play, and I’m playing for him now, playing his pain,” Dowdell told the New York Times in 2007.

Goodwin, a hip-hop artist and poet whose rap-battle play, How We Got On, was staged locally at the now-defunct Forum Theatre nine years ago, clearly has a strong connection to the narrative possibilities of music. For Bars and Measures, he’s turned real-life brothers Dowdell and Shah into Eric (Joel Ashur) and Bilal (Louis E. Davis), respectively. Both characters have a project. Bilal is relying on Eric to help him remember bits of the blues—he calls it a lament—he’s composing about his plight in solitary, or perhaps the American Muslim’s plight in the wake of 9/11. (Kristopher Funn supplies the production’s moody original score, and also has the unenviable task of trying to imagine the composition Bilal has been working on in his head.) Eric, meanwhile, needs the jazz instruction Bilal is giving him as he prepares to perform a benefit concert to support his brother’s legal defense. 

Though loyal to his brother, Eric disapproves of Bilal’s conversion to Islam, and sometimes calls him by his former name out of spite, like Sonny Liston trash-talking Muhammad Ali in 1964. (Ali also inspired Goodwin’s work; his play And in This Corner… Cassius Clay was first staged in 2016.)

Naturally, Eric’s envy of his brother’s superior talent plays into this dynamic, a wrinkle that Ashur skillfully folds into his performance. From a more pragmatic perspective, Eric wants Bilal, whom he believes is innocent, to stick to the specifics of his own case instead of making himself the wronged face of the U.S. government’s anti-Muslim dragnet in the early years of this century.

Again, it’s a scenario that seems too melodramatic to be believed, but Davis and Ashur build a rapport strong enough to suspend our disbelief—up to a point. Trouble arrives only when Goodwin expands his canvas. Afsheen Misaghi plays the prison guard who oversees their visits as well as the prosecutor who’s trying to put Bilal away in the play’s brisk courtroom scenes. The final member of the cast, Lynette Rathnam, plays both Bilal’s attorney and a thinly drawn Muslin singer toward whom Eric feels a romantic attraction. It isn’t Rathnam’s fault that she’s playing a plot device, purpose-built to make Eric recognize, belatedly, that he too has some anti-Muslim bigotry in his heart, any more than it’s Misaghi’s fault he’s playing a succession of stock characters. But the scenes with the secondary cast have the unfortunate effect of diluting the power of what might’ve been a taut, intimate two-hander focused on the two brothers. 

Even with a slender run time of 75 minutes, the expanded cast introduces a sense of drift, and Goodwin’s uncertain conclusion makes the entire enterprise feel tentative. In the years since Goodwin wrote Bars and Measures, Shah has been released. What’s his relationship with Dowdell now, I wonder? Perhaps Goodwin could revisit the subject.

Mosaic Theatre’s Bars and Measures, written by Idris Goodwin and directed by Reginald L. Douglas, plays at Atlas Performing Arts Center through Feb. 26. $29–$50. Goodwin will be present for a talk following the 8 p.m. performance on Feb. 18.