Tuesday, May 20, 2014

“Pray to Ball” Makes a Bank Shot at the Skylight Theatre by M.R. Hunter

It isn't often when sports are realistically performed onstage. Spatial limitations along with unpredictable physical coordination generally rules out taking such dramatic risks, but Amir Abdullah's rousing play successfully incorporates the game of basketball into its enlightening drama concerning a friendship tested when one coverts to Islam.

The risky endeavors in terms of the subject matter and required athletic improvisation combined make for a rewarding payoff and an engaging storyline about two rising star NCAA players at University of Miami, Lou (Abdullah) and Hakeem (Y'Lan Noel) who seem to have the world by the tail. As they are surrounded by fans, groupie girls, and potential professional offers, the duo revel in their instant stardom until an unexpected loss forces Hakeem to reexamine his life and beliefs. A flyer inviting him to the Muslim Student Association sparks his interest and newfound discovery in Islam.

Lou rejects and undermines his best friend's efforts as Hakeem's budding faith grows under the guidance of an on-campus counselor and his Muslim tutor, Tamana (Ulka Simone Mohanty). The tension leads to frustrations both on and off the court, heated exchanges and seemingly impossible reconciliation as the men drift further apart until a career-changing accident takes one of them out for the season.

 The plot's predictable arc and archetypal characters occasionally suffers from convenient setups but the transitions featuring video projections and interviews with Lou and Hakeem swiftly smooth out these unnatural progressions. The lively dialogue is entertaining and bolstered by excellent performances by Abdullah and Noel. There is a lack of depth explored, partly as the play pivots in too many directions and troublesome subplots. The examination of Islam is superficial at best with few insights as to why Hakeem felt so compelled to study it.

Nevertheless, "Pray to Ball" is unique in its incorporation of basketball choreographed by Micaal Stevens, particularly the scene where the men play a kind of HORSE on the beautifully realized mini-court set designed by Jeff McLaughlin. Two hoops on either side allow for fantastic shots, slam dunks and even, if not always purposeful rim shot. Set changes are also quickly and easily executed with the modular set. Video shot by Spencer Lee offers a wide screen televised effect against the back wall. Overall, the creative and technical team made for a terrific collaboration.

Director Bill Mendieta deftly follows the natural rhythm and beats of the script, allowing for fast-paced energy juxtaposed by tender moments in the library and in the Muslim Student Center. Incorporating the center aisle opens the staging further for an intimate, up close experience.

Rickie Peete as Bilal, Hakeem's wise mentor into Islam gives a solid stoicism to his portrayal. As Leafy Green, a sudden inscrutable cameo character his comedic antics are also appreciable. Brice Harris as Jim is amusing as the stiff but trying to be hip on-air sports journalist. Lindsey Beeman as Nika, Lou's tumultuous girlfriend brings shades of vulnerability to her otherwise hard-edged character. Mohanty has one of the most complex roles in this play and she brings a sweet but guarded nuance to her scenes with Hakeem. Noel delivers a fine performance that is naturalistic and likeable. Abdullah softens judgmental Lou with loads of humor and spontaneity.

Extended through June 8, "Pray to Ball' is an exceptionally solid, interesting and worthy play by an upcoming playwright. It's a fantastic show for basketball enthusiasts who will appreciate the athletic aspect both visually and mentally. Unlike anything playing right now, this is one to catch.

"Pray to Ball"
Runs through June 8
Fri and Sat @ 8pm
Sun @ 2pm
The Skylight Theatre
1816 ½ N. Vermont
Los Angeles, CA  90027
Tickets: $30-$34
PH: 213-761-7061

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