Playwright Idris Goodwin employs ripped-from-the-headlines circumstances to retell the ancient story of brothers in conflict with "Bars and Measures," which opened Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
Bilal (Ansa Akyea) is the wild kid who found purpose and then trouble through his embrace of Islam and Eric (Darius Dotch) is the serious kid brother who is in awe of his big brother's musical gift. Bilal plays jazz stand-up bass; Eric is into classical piano.
Not that they play these instruments in Goodwin's play, directed by Marion McClinton. A score and sound design, created by Justin Ellington, provide the back beat as Bilal — in jail on terrorism charges — mentors Eric during visits. Music is their common language, even if Bilal tweaks his brother's uptight choice of Brahms and Beethoven over Monk and Coltrane.
Ellington's music fits in nicely with Andrea Heilman's neon-streaked set, split into a drab prison and a sleek, modern apartment. Michael Wangen's lighting scheme also accomplishes its work by staking out the action.
Goodwin's facility with the tools of writing could well make him important by the time he's finished. He gives his actors some good lines and a few effervescent moments. He takes the easy way out some times, but his heart seems quite sincere.
"Bars and Measures" only glances at its subjects, though, never thoroughly penetrating the ideas Goodwin presents. There's a faux trial sequence (Bilal gave money to a mosque suspected of supporting terrorists) that relies on shouting and slogans. When Akyea's Bilal recites a litany of Islamophobic events that in his mind justify his actions, his speech feels like journalism without a convincing sense of interpretation or insight.
The resonance with Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced," which just played the Guthrie, doesn't do Goodwin's 70-minute play any favors, either. Though Akhtar's play was only slightly longer, it drilled into the psyche of a complex Muslim man torn between self-loathing and pride. Goodwin's script skirts the surface.
McClinton's production, particularly with the addition of Ellington's music, and the bifurcated staging, has given Goodwin's under-investigated script a best chance to express itself. Akyea and Dotch both are focused on the situation of their characters. Their acting feels like behavior, which is a good place to be for an honest portrayal.
This is the second consecutive new play at the Jungle. Artistic director Sarah Rasmussen had wanted to get new voices onto her stage. Goodwin and McClinton are the first African-American creative team ever to work at the theater and "Bars and Measures" follows this summer's "Le Switch," another new play. The premieres are reminiscent of when Bain Boehlke staged Craig Wright's new plays more than a decade ago and sprinkled in other new scripts.
Keep up the good work.