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‘Bars and Measures’ Review: Notes From Jail

Across the table from each other in a jail’s visiting room, the brothers are scatting, their vocal jam making sweet jazz in a cold, hard space where instruments are not allowed.

When the hovering guard tells them time’s up, the classically trained younger brother, Eric, will go home to his apartment and his keyboard — and to a cherished upright bass that was his older brother’s livelihood before he was arrested in a federal sting. Bilal, the elder sibling, accused of terrorist plotting, will return to his cell, where the compositions in his head will keep him company.

Idris Goodwin’s play “Bars and Measures,” making its New York premiere in Kristan Seemel’s smart, supple production at Urban Stages, is “loosely based on true events,” a note in the script says. Those events are the story of Tarik Shah, a jazz musician from the Bronx who in 2007 pleaded guilty to plotting to help Al Qaeda, and Antoine Dowdell, his older brother whose visits to Shah at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan were filled with music-making.

In the play, which is infused with original music by Justin Ellington (yes, he is related to Duke, but distantly), jazz is an easier topic of visiting-day conversation than Bilal’s impending trial or how he got arrested. He insists on his innocence, and Eric (Roderick Lawrence) fervently believes him. Planning to perform in a benefit for his brother’s defense fund, Eric needs Bilal (Shabazz Green) to help him sharpen his own jazz chops.

Their parents raised them on jazz, and Bilal gets as much spiritual sustenance from it as he does from his faith. But there’s a political element to his affinity for jazz and his contempt for classical music (“Jazz is the black man’s classical tradition,” he says), just as there is to his reverence for Islam, which he calls “the black man’s true religion.”

Bilal sees all Muslims as his brothers, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the profiling and persecution of them infuriates him. What ensues between him and a man who turns out to be an F.B.I. informant is less benign than Bilal has led Eric to believe.

Proceeding through Bilal’s trial to its shattered aftermath, “Bars and Measures” is about kinship and allegiance: the messy, painful, tenacious bonds of family, and what you owe to your nation if it looks at you and sees the enemy. But this is also a tale about getting lost, and whether and how you can find your way back — which could describe the gauntlet thrown down with any jazz solo.

An off note in the play — a plot strand that begins with great charm before taking on an awkward didacticism — concerns Eric’s involvement with Sylvia (Salma Shaw), a Muslim vocalist whose narrative purpose ultimately seems to be to debunk stereotypes. (Like Abraham Makany, the fourth member of the fine cast, Shaw plays multiple roles.)

But this production (with a set by Frank J. Oliva, lighting by John Salutz and sound by David Margolin Lawson) is for the most part handsomely polished, and Goodwin mirrors the brothers’ relationship in the play’s very form.

Its ending is a callback to a composition Bilal writes — unresolved and, as such, absolutely apt.

Bars and Measures
Through Nov. 10 at Urban Stages Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, urbanstages.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

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