Theater Preview: ‘Bars and Measures’ tackles terrorism, brotherhood and music
A well-known New York jazz musician, a convert to Islam, has been arrested in a federal sting operation as a terrorist sympathizer. During visits with his younger brother (a classical pianist and a Christian), music is the language the two speak, through tapped-out rhythms and vocal scatting.
“Bars and Measures,” a new play by Idris Goodwin at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, raises questions of allegiance — familial, cultural and political — as well as trust, and the gray areas often obscured by the black-and-white volatility sparked by society’s most difficult issues. It is based on the arrest several years ago of a jazz musician from the Bronx.
“It was one of these sort of Patriot Act-inspired, post-9/11 sweeps for homegrown terrorist groups, and there were a lot of questions about whether it was entrapment, because he hadn’t actually carried out anything,” Goodwin said. “While he was awaiting trial, his brother would visit him in prison and since they couldn’t have instruments, they would scat back and forth.”
Goodwin, a Lanford Wilson Award finalist, hip-hop poet and essayist, fictionalized this real-life event, weaving its political and legal ramifications into an intimate story of two brothers (played by Matt Orduña and Donathan Walters), who connect through jazz and shared family history, before the older brother’s struggle to have his story heard and the younger’s growing doubts pull them apart.
“Homegrown dissidents, or radicals, whatever,” Goodwin said, “can be [the people] we see every day. I was curious about what that does for personal relationships. I’m also interested in multiple allegiances. Religion, gender, sexuality: all of these things play into the fact that none of us are all the same. Where do our perspectives line up, and where do our perspectives diverge? How do we begin the process of finding common language, and how do we listen to the language we don’t necessarily understand?”
“I think it’s far scarier to ask the question and take a moment to try to understand than it is to just demonize and put people in box,” he said.
Commissioned by B Street Theater in Sacramento, “Bars and Measures” is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere at four theaters: B Street, Boston Court, Chicago’s Prop Thtr, and Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
Goodwin, who teaches performance writing at Colorado College and whose works for stage have been produced at Actors Theater of Louisville’s Humana Festival, Steppenwolf, Chicago’s MPAACT, and other theaters across the country, is one of seven playwrights featured in “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” commissioned by the New Black Fest.
He is an author of the Pushcart Prize-nominated essay collection “These Are The Breaks,” a recording artist (“Break Beat Poems” and “Rhyming While Black”), and co-host of public radio’s “Critical Karaoke.” Among Goodwin’s eclectic TV appearances: a performance on “Sesame Street” of his original song “Rhyme Time.”
Goodwin is also a member of Break Beat Poets, a collective that explores the rhythms and tempos of hip-hop in ancient forms of poetry, verse poetry, lyric poetry, “all of that,” he said, and he envisioned “Bars and Measures” as a work that would move “like a piece of music, a piece that was poetic, that felt like jazz, that was a little bit messy,” he said.
In creating the brothers’ back-and-forth scatting, he thought of beat-boxing and free-styling “the way that in high school you beat on the lunchroom table, tap your pen, beat your fist and make a beat.”
Weyni Mengesha, the Canadian director and composer for Trey Anthony’s “Da Kink in My Hair,” is making her West Coast U.S. directorial debut at Boston Court with Goodwin’s play. To reflect the brothers’ relationship to music — composed by music director Noah Agruss — she looked for a theatrical language that would bring the audience into that central aspect of the piece.
“That’s something that I set out to think about with my designers,” Mengesha said. “How can we move rhythmically through this play so the whole show feels like a song, so we don’t just hear it through the text, we feel it?”
One result of that approach: a manually manipulated rotating stage, designed by Francois-Pierre Couture.
“The main thing that I love about this play,” Mengesha noted, “is that it’s not answering questions about how to solve all the problems. It is talking about the fact that we have to listen to each other, despite how hurt we might feel by the other.”
Asked about the immediacy of the real-world racism, extremism and violence that provide the backdrop for the play, Goodwin reached for a hopeful note.
“These are the same issues that have been around forever,” he said. “They’re just out in the open now.” Strides have been made in terms of laws, “and that’s huge. But as far as people’s hearts go, that’s where it gets more difficult. The chasm between regular working everyday folk and the people who make laws, who own the big corporations, is pretty wide.
“It’s a scary time,” Goodwin said. “But I remind myself that, no, this is good. We’re actually getting to the place where we’re starting to have the conversations. I do believe that we’ll get there. We’ve just got to make a mess first. I’ve got to be optimistic.”