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The Radical History of Idris Goodwin’s ‘Bars and Measures’

Photo Credit: Russ Rowland

By: Keyanah Nurse 

As brothers Eric and Bilal sit across from each other, engaged in the call-and-response melodies of their scatting, it is easy to forget that they are having a jam session during prison visitation hours.  The boldness of Bilal’s unwavering demand for musical perfection from his younger brother almost overshadows the starkness of his bright orange jumpsuit. But as a classically trained musician, Eric struggles to keep up with the subtle stylistic improvisations that define the radical dynamism of jazz.  Jazz, as Bilal reminds Eric throughout their visits, is “the black man’s classical tradition” and has always been steeped in a radical politics of critiquing the mainstream. 

It is for precisely these reasons that jazz functions as one of the main metaphors of Idris Goodwin’s play Bars and Measures’, which is currently making its New York debut at Urban Stages.  Featuring exceptional direction from Kristan Seemel, as well as challenging performances from Shabazz Green (Bilal), Rodrick Lawrence (Eric), Salma Shaw (Silvia and various characters), and Abraham Makany (various characters), ‘Bars and Measures’ explores the relationship between two brothers separated by faith, but bound by kinship.  The play begins with Eric’s staunch support of his incarcerated brother’s innocence, as well as his muted ambivalence towards his brother’s relationship to Islam. However, as the play unfolds and more details emerge about Bilal’s alleged participation in an Islamic terrorist organization,  Eric’s ambivalence towards his brother’s religion transforms to outright hostility. In response, Bilal defends his innocence, arguing instead that the federal government “set him up.” Jazz itself keeps the brothers connected in the midst of their rapidly imploding relationship. More importantly, the musical genre brings to the fore issues such as post-911 Islamophobia, anti-black racism, the history of black radicalism, and the geopolitics of the War on Terror. 

The richness and complexity of ‘Bars and Measures’ is certainly attributed to the story of Tarik Shah, on which the play is based.  A Bronx-native who was raised in the Nation of Islam Temple No. 7 —the same temple formerly led by Malcolm X before his assasination —Shah was a jazz bassist and martial arts practitioner who plead guilty to conspiring to train potential al-Qaeda recruits in hand-to-hand combat, back in 2007. However, given Shah’s familial connections with the Nation of Islam, it is highly probable that, just as the character Bilal claims, he was entrapped by the federal government.  Such a possibility recalls a deep history of state surveillance of black political organizing in the United States throughout much of the twentieth century. Indeed, as cultural historian Maryam Aziz contends, at least since the 1950s, the FBI has partially legitimized its surveillance, arrests, and prosecutions of African American Muslims by citing their practice of martial arts and other forms of community security.  

Photo Credit: Russ Rowland

‘Bars and Measures’ gestures towards this rich history, while also imagining what the interpersonal dynamics might have been like behind the striking news story of Tariq Shah.  Shah, like the character Bilal, also had a brother who shared a musical background, and the scatting that appears in many of the play’s most intense scenes also occurred in real life between Shah and his brother.  The play effortlessly moves between these micro interpersonal dynamics and macro social issues, linking them in ways that demonstrate how even our most private moments are never divorced from the social milieu in which they occur.  For example, the love arc between Eric and the character Sylvia, played by Salma Shaw, invites the audience to consider the contours of post-911 Islamophobia, particularly its ties with American nationalism. When Eric claims that Islam is an especially violent religion because it motivates its believers to plot acts of terror, Sylvia, who identifies as an Arab Muslim in the play, firmly pushes against that narrative.  The very dissolution of their budding romance thus demonstrates how the macro politics of the U.S.’s War on Terror make love between certain people impossible.

Although wrapped in the pain and resentment of seemingly losing his brother to a different kind of family, Eric’s spiral into Islamophobia also serves as a foil to the radical politics of Bilal. When Bilal seeks membership to the mosque that he later donates his entire monetary inheritance to (a development that sparks outrage in Eric), his profound monologue reveals a legacy of black radical politics, one that links the history of anti-black racism in the United States to the contemporary violence of U.S. militarism in the Middle East.  He argues that the struggles are inherently linked, thereby solidifying his loyalty to and belongingness within this religious community. Importantly, this monologue sets the stage for Bilal’s subsequent ruminations on the necessity of self-defense in light of the indiscriminate anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In one of the play’s most poignant moments, Bilal asks the audience: how can you pray for those who would harm you when your hands are bound and bleeding? But herein lies one of the more daring aspects of ‘Bars and Measures’: an invitation to to grapple with the reality that not all violence is the same and that in order to protect one’s self, it may in fact be necessary.  

‘Bars and Measures’ is currently playing at Urban Stages in midtown NYC until November 17, 2019.  

Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection.  Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.

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