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In the press notes for the new play, Pray to Ball, producer Gary Grossman describes it as a story about a friendship with a message of acceptance, which makes it sound like an after-school special written by Nicholas Sparks. It’s not that Grossman’s summation is inaccurate; it just that he undersells a superb play that addresses issues of race, faith, fame and friendship in a vernacular that masks an underlying level of impressive sophistication.
When we first meet them, childhood friends from the projects Hakeem (Y’lan Noel) and Lou (Amir Abdullah) are being interviewed on an ESPN-like college hoops program. The stage, which looks like a gym with baskets right and left, cleverly uses video panels to illustrate backstory and show game highlights or scenery. It is an economical and effective way of introducing the characters and milieu before quickly jumping to the dorm room they share at Miami Florida University where they are the one-two punch of the Cyclones.
With the championships in front of them there’s little doubt a big NBA contract is looming and the guys know it. In the early going they bask in the glow of youth when everything still seems possible and the life they’ve always dreamed of is just a few semesters away.
When a death in the family sends Hakeem looking for spiritual solace, he visits the Muslim Student Union where he meets Bilal, a well-meaning demagogue anxious to convert the basketball star, and Tamana (Ulka Simone Mohanty), a Muslim student who volunteers to teach Hakeem the Koran.
Unfortunately, once the focus shifts to the burgeoning romance between them the energy begins leaching out of Pray to Ball. Discussions of Islam and stereotypes of all kinds are thought provoking without being pedantic, and bromides about tolerance are thankfully kept to a minimum. The problem is Tamana is a bit of a drip, a character drawn by Abdullah with little dimension and played with even less conviction by Mohanty. While she cares for Hakeem, in keeping with her religious background she remains aloof to his flirting. When we learn she has a secret it turns out to be a melodramatic one that serves mainly as a device to keep them apart.
For Lou, the struggle on the court is to get Hakeem’s head in the game so they can win the championship. The struggle off the court is to keep this lifelong friendship alive with a guy who is becoming a very different person right before his eyes.
Director Bill Mendieta excels when the material is strong and manages to make the best of it when it’s not. Working with Micaal Stevens, he stages a hard fought game of one-on-one that seemed certain to end early in injury because who in their right mind would stage a basketball game in a black box theater? But there were no injuries (except maybe that lady in the front row who Noel fell on), and yes the scene is utterly convincing.
Mendieta gets ingenious help from production designer Jeff McLaughlin, who conveniently builds furniture into the wall of bleachers. When a dorm room is needed two beds roll out and a desk flies in from the wings. For the Muslim Student Union the beds recede and a table and chair are added.
For first-time playwright Amir Abdullah, his exquisite performance and his nuanced writing are the biggest story coming out of Pray to Ball, but equally noteworthy is Y’lan Noel, a newcomer to the Los Angeles theater scene from Atlanta. As charismatic as he is talented, Noel imbues Hakeem with the swagger one would expect from a college hoops star yet he remains humble in the face of tragedy as well as in his embrace of Islam.
It doesn’t take a spiritual person to see the humanity in Abdullah’s smart and entertaining play, nor does it take a basketball fan.
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