By Darlene Donloe
Pray to Ball is a play about basketball that’s not a play about basketball.
Well, it is, but it isn’t. Take another glance and it’s so much more.
There are several narratives percolating in this complex comedy/drama. Most notably is Islam, friendship and, of course, basketball, which is actually the “B” story.
There’s also a story about relationships, commitment, faith, sex, money, expectations, disappointment, careers, respect, the future and most of all, love!
Launching his first full-length play with this show, which is currently enjoying an extended run at the Skylight Theatre, Playwright Amir Abdullah and Director Bill Mendieta pull it all together in a production that isn’t afraid to open a dialogue about several contentious topics, including whether college athletes should get paid, the degradation of women by athletes and Islam post 911.
The play is about Lou (Abdullah) and Hakeem (Y’Lan Noel), two childhood friends who are currently playing for Miami Florida University, but have dreams of making it to the NBA. Both came up hard and are determined to make it out of their circumstances by hopefully signing huge contracts to play professional ball.
Although they have been lifelong ‘boys,’ Lou and Hakeem couldn’t be more different.
Lou, the star sophomore of the team, is a bit of a loose cannon. He doesn’t care about the rules. He plays fast and loose and is living life regardless of the consequences. Hakeem, a freshman, has moved on from some of the childish antics he and Lou used to do. He is the more level headed of the two. He wants to follow the rules so that he doesn’t put his future in jeopardy. But, he’s also conflicted. He is trying to find himself. He is trying to find some direction, especially after the death of his mother. Unfulfilled personally, emotionally and internally, Hakeem eventually turns to Islam, much to the chagrin of Lou who feels like he’s losing his best friend.
What Lou and Hakeem find is that faith is personal as is intolerance.
For many, the subject of Islam is controversial, combative and troublesome. Placing it in a college setting with a storyline focusing on two childhood friends who are two steps away from making their dreams come true, is daring.
Continuing with the story - one night Lou brings two girls Nika (Lindsey Beeman) and Tamana (Ulka Simone Mohanty) back to the dorm. Tamana is completely drunk and passes out on Hakeem’s bed. Lou and Nika take their party elsewhere leaving Hakeem alone with Tamana, who when she wakes, realizes she has made a grave mistake. It turns out that the night before Tamana, who is a Muslim, had a first encounter with alcohol and was completely out of control.
As luck would have it, when Hakeem wanders into the Muslim Student Center, he runs into Tamana, who works there. Bilal (Rickie Peete), who runs the center and mentors Hakeem, enlists Tamana’s help in educating him about Islam.
Eventually, Hakeem and Tamana warm up to each other, but their friendship is more than complicated.
The best thing about this show is the authentic approach to the material. It’s in your face, it’s real and it’s uncomfortable. It’s intense, it’s humorous and it’s challenging, all the elements that make for an entertaining production. If this is Abdullah’s first full-length offering, can’t wait for his sophomoric turn.
The show is buoyed by tight, yet fluid direction (Mendieta); an incredibly creative and resourceful set (Jeff McLaughlin), Hana Kim’s vibrant projections and a winning cast.
Abdullah and Noel (The Hustle) are exceptional! Their relationship is believable, their chemistry is on point, their ball handling is credible and their banter is that of real lifelong buddies.
Mohanty’s performance is subdued and effectual, Peete’s performance rings genuine and Beeman’s is bold. Brice Harris, who plays Jim, a sports show correspondent, isn’t in the show much, but when he is it’s pleasant and just the right amount of hilarious.
Pray to Ball is one of the best theatrical offerings so far this year. It’s fast-paced, emotional, heartbreaking, divisive, intelligent, educational and heartwarming. It’s also a must-see!
Pray to Ball is written by Amir Abdullah, directed by Bill Mendieta and produced by Gary Grossman and the Skylight Theatre Company. It stars Amir Abdullah, Y’Lan Noel, Lindsey Beeman, Ulka Simone Mohanty, Brice Harris and Rickie Peete.
Pray to Ball runs Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 2 p.m. through June 29, 2014. Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027; Tickets: $30 - $34; More information: http://vimeo.com/95074775. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or online at http://skylighttix.com
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Pray to Ball gets an E (excellent).