Race, religion and terrorism: In the prescient 2015 drama "Bars and Measures" at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, playwright Idris Goodwin hits the trifecta of incendiary headline topics, overlaid with rich musical inflections.
In the captivating opener, music takes center stage as two men seated across a table launch into an intricate skat and bebop routine. Through the efficiently crafted dialogue that follows, we learn they are brothers who hold opposing faiths. And the reason this performance is a cappella: Inmates are not permitted musical instruments.
Loosely based on a 2005 domestic anti-terrorism case, the play has classically-trained pianist Eric (Donathan Walters), a Christian, visiting his imprisoned brother Bilal (Matt Orduña), a stellar jazz upright bassist and converted Muslim who's been arrested in a sting operation. Convinced of Bilal's innocence, Eric must venture outside his musical comfort zone in an upcoming jazz benefit concert for his brother's defense — hence the play's double-edged title.
Both actors skillfully transpose their characters' contrasting temperaments and music philosophies — Eric's allegiance to structured formality and precision versus Bilal's free-form soulful exploration — into rifts with broader sociopolitical resonance. Issues and moral complexities further deepen with supporting performances by Zehra Fazal and Brian Abraham in multiple roles.
Its lush musical textures notwithstanding, the play poses unsettling questions: Was Bilal profiled and entrapped by an FBI informant? Would that absolve a possible predisposition to support a terrorist cause? Do the charges warrant "extraordinary measures" that cross the line of torturing American citizens? References to real post-9/11 incidents ensure these questions are not framed as theoretical dilemmas.
The piece, presented as part of the National New Play Network's "rolling world premiere" program, is well-served by Weyni Mengesha's provocative and stylish staging. Goodwin's script avoids the obvious and expected, and it refuses to settle for easy answers.
As Bilal's case comes to trial, however, impassioned rhetoric starts to work at cross-purposes to the nuanced character-based dramatic setup. The emerging polemic is increasingly urgent and sobering, albeit less emotionally involving than it began.
"Bars and Measures"
Where: The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends Oct. 23
Info: (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourt.com
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
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