By Tania Fisher
Theater of the highest caliber is yours to enjoy at Urban Stages with their production of “Bars and Measures.” Written by an award winning playwright, music composed by a Grammy and Obie winner, four electrifying and multi-talented actors, and an award winning director, make this a hot theatrical experience.
Two African-American brothers who both share a talent and love for music but in different directions; the younger one, Eric, a Julliard trained classical musician, and the older one, Bilal, committed to Jazz and a converter to Islam currently in jail for crimes against the nation and awaiting his trial. Eric’s visits to his older brother in jail begin as mostly vocal jam sessions between the two musicians with the typical sibling rivalry when it comes to differences of opinions about musical tastes. Eric does what he can on the outside to support his brother who is now being mistreated in prison, and even works to raise money for his legal fees through a concert in his honor. However, as Bilal’s trial date draws closer, and the facts are revealed, Eric becomes tormented by the choices his brother has made and frustrated by what he sees as Bilal’s commitment and love for his Muslim “brothers” above himself as his biological brother. As Eric’s level of understanding and opinion grows, so does his level of internal conflict as he grapples between judging and deciding for himself what is right and what is wrong.
Hauntingly engaging actor Shabazz Green completely embodies the incarcerated Bilal to a transcendent level. Moving, always believable and real, he had us with him from the very beginning, drawing empathy and compassion no matter what your personal beliefs or stance. Roderick Lawrence as the younger brother Eric is a magnetic and engaging actor, never faltering in his genuineness and honesty. Both Green and Lawrence showed remarkable chemistry with each other as well as stunningly superb singing and musical skills.
Experienced TV and theater actor, Abraham Makany is well chosen for his roles as prison guard and later lawyer in the trial scene as well as reporter. His character portrayal and delivery for each is absolutely spot on and nothing short of perfection. Gifted singer/actress Salma Shaw plays Sylvia, a non-practicing Muslim who works with Eric on a musical project. Shaw also plays Bilal’s defense lawyer as well as a reporter later on in the play, giving a legitimate and authentic performance for each as well as impressing us with her vocal talents.
All four actors delivered beautiful and natural performances and nothing more could have been asked from any of them.
The play itself never presumes to judge or lecture what is right or wrong and yet still provides satisfying arcs and resolutions. To say that playwright Idris Goodwin is clever is an understatement. The natural dialogue was always meaningful and never superfluent and always moved the story along. Goodwin provides just the right balance between shifts of times of events, and uses the fancifulness of theatrical liberties to their greatest advantage. The trial scene was nothing short of brilliance, and was smartly delivered in a choppy fast paced grab to convey only the main points and emotionally express the motivations from each side.
Award winning Director Kristan Seemel has complemented Goodwin’s words supremely. Seemel seemed to innately understand when to speed up and when to slow down, and when to push for strength and urgency. When it came to the use of the space, Seemel’s expert choices was an added exciting dimension to the production.
Grammy, ASCAP, and Obie winner Composer Justin Ellington provides the additional character of music and his work and contributions to the play were essential. His arrangements are positively spectacular and enhance the entire play bringing it to a Broadway level production.
Award winning Set Designer Frank Oliva has provided a clever and unencumbered set that is clear in its intentions, while lending itself to align with the musical foundations of the two main characters both in its color choices and its design. As a visual take one is immediately impressed by the clarity and “basic-ness” of it, with flirty additions such as the lights suspended from the ceiling placed in such a way that they almost appear as musical notes on a page.
Bars and Measures is exactly what good theater is all about – top notch production in all its mediums, interesting and mindful story-telling, flat out entertaining, and a cast so talented they’ll be stars in their own right any minute, so if you want to say “you knew them when” then now is the time to run to see this play.
Photos: Russ Rowland
Urban Stages, 259 W 30th St, New York, NY 10001
More info: https://urbanstages.org/barsandmeasures
Running time: 1 hr 30 mns (no intermission) thru November 10