Friday, September 9, 2016

Humming Along with Bars and Measures

How can I pray for my country when my hands are broken? 

Social movements and the arts have always seemed to stay closely intertwined, and things haven't changed in the 21st century. It seems that the Black Lives Matter movement is inspiring all sorts of innovative programming in the arts these days. The latest to fit in this mold is Bars and Measures (running at the Jungle Theater through October 9), and does it ever have something to say. 

Bars and Measures follows two musically inclined brothers who take different paths in life. Eric is a classically trained pianist who makes a few extra dollars teaching children and accompanying vocalists on the side. Bilal is a fiery jazz musician who is sent to prison after he is caught in an FBI sting at his mosque for donating to alleged terrorist activities. 

The bulk of the show follows Eric as he visits his brother and works to free him from his cell. The two are bonded over music, and teaching and learning jazz music is intrinsic to their relationship. Eric believes fully in Bilal's innocence and holds a very public benefit to raise money for Bilal's legal fees. During the trial, however, recordings are released that seem to directly implicate Bilal. The new evidence leads Eric to seriously question their relationship and creates a deep rift between the brothers. The insightful script packs all of this information into less than an hour and a half; this is a textbook case for why plays/movies/books/etc. don't need to be long to be great. The writing here is wonderful and profound, and it has nothing to do with excessive length.
Photo by Dan Norman.
The cast is a mixed bag. Ansa Akyea is riveting as Bilal, bringing a quiet, deep strength to his role and communicating untold amounts of anguish through mostly silent scenes. Akyea is one of the finest actors the Twin Cities has to offer, and it shows; he can communicate with a glance what many struggle to convey with entire monologues. Darius Dotch is a good match for Akyea as Bilal's brother Eric, and his lively narration and explosive emotion towards the end of the show provides a vibrant foil to Akyea's silent power. The supporting cast doesn't fare quite as well. Taous Claire Khazem is earnest but ultimately a little too tentative as Sylvia, Eric's student and almost love interest. She fares better in a series of cameos as various reporters and lawyers. Maxwell Collyard is okay as Wes the prison guard and several other supporting characters, but doesn't add much beyond the basics to his part. 

The biggest draw of Bars and Measures is the tension between Eric and Bilal, in the chasm between their life choices. On one side is respectability, Christianity and keeping up appearances, working your ass off to do the "right thing," and swallowing your tongue against any dissension that might ruffle too many feathers. On the other is passionate protest, a willingness to follow your beliefs to the grave, switching religions to fulfill political as well as spiritual goals, a total alliance with the downtrodden and against the oppressor. 

The show tends to vouch slightly more towards the latter perspective, and it's that allegiance that makes it so thought provoking. So often we hear from society that Muslims are violent or cruel or oppressive or evil; how often do we hear from the other perspective? How often do we hear from those who are not born in that faith, but choose it instead? How often do we question what it is exactly about American culture that might make a person turn against it and want to destroy it? 

These are uncomfortable things to ask, but it's important to do so as we see cultural movements continuing to challenge the status quo. Life tends to exist outside of the box, in a gray area, and Bars and Measures does an excellent job at probing that space. It's a great show to approach with an open mind to learn something about your assumptions as an American, and to learn a little about yourself. Bars and Measures may feature a heartbreaking narrative but it is not one without hope. That hope is worth seeking, and I hope it's something we continue to fight for. For more information about the show or to buy tickets, click on this link.