Two brothers meet in a prison cell and proceed to sing a cappella be-bop in the opening scene of Idris Goodwin’s “Bars & Measures,” which is now in production on the B Street Theater’s main stage. The brothers are united by their love of music, but they are divided by the kind of music each favors (and, as we later learn, by several other, perhaps more significant, issues).
Bilal’s music is jazz; Eric’s is classical. In the opening scene, Bilal, in jail and awaiting trial for an unrevealed crime, pushes his younger brother to do the “exercises” that will get him in touch with the heart and soul of Bilal’s composition, a composition, we later learn that the older brother hopes the younger one will play at a concert. Eric is committed to the project, even as he takes on the role of music teacher for a classical singer, a gig that the older brother views with disdain.
The awkward sense of tension between the two brothers is at the core of Mr. Goodwin’s provocative one-act play, and that tension erupts in a dramatic scene in which the reason for Bilal’s imprisonment is revealed and the deeper conflicts between the two brothers threaten the bond they have maintained with each other.
The play has dramatic moments and in its own way it is meaningful theater, but it is also fair to say that “Bars & Measures” is a small play that probably would work better on the smaller of the two B Street stages (where the excellent “Grounded” is continuing its extended run). On the larger stage where it is currently being performed, the minimal set design (little more than a few chairs, a bass violin and a keyboard) accentuates how little real action is taking place during most of the 85-minute production. In the B Street’s larger theater, much of the intimacy of the performances by the actors is lost for those seated on the far sides of the three-sided stage (as we were on the night we attended).
But we were certainly able to appreciate the excellent performances provided by the two leads. As Balil, Jahi Kearse portrays the mixture of guilt, anger, passion (for his music, especially) and naïve idealism that leads him to the fateful decision that places him at risk for lengthy imprisonment. And as younger brother Eric, Darian Dauchan is masterful in reflecting his character’s desire to please his older brother and to believe in him until all the evidence proves he no longer can. The rage he displays in the play’s climactic scene is that of a man who feels betrayed by one he loved intensely. (Jazmine Ramay and Jimmy Sidhu appear in a variety of incidental roles.)
The B Street production has been skillfully directed by Jenny Koons, who makes as much of the limited physical action in the play as she probably can while still preserving the intimacy that is at the play’s core. Noah Agruss provided important musical direction and composed the original jazz riffs the brothers sing.
In the end, “Bars” can be seen as a play about large geo-political issues, and it certainly works on that level. But it is far more meaningful as a play about the struggle between loving brothers who must deal with striking differences between them if their love is to find new ways to endure. In that sense, the play has universal appeal.
Performances of “Bars & Measures” continue on the B Street’s mainstage until September 27. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2711 B St.), by phone (916-443-5300) or online (bstreettheatre.org).