The Players' Game

In Pray to Ball, Lou (Amir Abdullah) and Hakeem (Y'€™lan Noel) are best friends from the projects who attend Miami Florida University, where they play basketball with their sights set on professional athletic careers. But things suddenly change when Hakeem loses his mother. Hakeem'€™s focus becomes less about fame, women, and fortune, and more about spiritual fulfillment through Islamic teachings.

Playwriting rookie Amir Abdullah penned Pray to Ball, which spotlights race, sex, and class issues more strongly than it does religious stigma.

When Lou and Hakeem first arrive at Miami Florida University, Hakeem is enchanted with their dorm accommodations, but the ever-skeptical Lou shatters his pal's delusions, quipping, "We make so much money for this school, they [sp] better hook it up."€ Throughout the play, Lou and Hakeem loosely toss the "€œN"€ word back and forth. Lou contemptuously calls his co-ed Caucasian squeeze Nika (Lindsey Beeman) a gold-digging "freak"€ and "snowflake,"€ while he refers to white men as "cr*ckas." For Lou, white women are "snowbunnies,"€ and he has other names for Middle Eastern followers of Islam. Lou embodies the insecure and faithless standard that Hakeem seeks to transcend through a disciplined Muslim life of faith and devotion.

Lou is Hakeem'€™s sole opponent as Hakeem seeks to pursue Islam. Hakeem'€™s religious choices do not threaten his basketball prospects or his social standing. Pray to Ball is an account of Islam's impact on the personal relationship between two best friends. The play does not explore the sensational politics surrounding Islam in America, or how these politics might exacerbate a young black youth'€™s chances of escaping the projects. Although Pray to Ball cites a few newsworthy references, such as the Gainesville Koran burnings and the Boston Marathon bombings, these references do little to ground major controversies surrounding Islam.

Matters of Sport

In general, sports dramas enjoy box-office success for good reason. The most successful works use the PRAY TO BALL, Skylight Theatre Companysports arena to clarify gripping story lines. Americans, especially, have a strong desire to align winners on the court with so-called good guys in life's arena. The most effective sports scripts utilize good guy/ bad guy scenarios and underdog psychology to stimulate our desire to live vicariously through oft-embattled characters whose lives are magnified on the playing field. When Hakeem loses his mother early in Pray to Ball, his supremely relatable dilemma briefly becomes our own. Moreover, Y'€™lan Noel's remarkable restraint in expressing Hakeem'€™s grief throughout the play further fuels our agony and our desire to see him win in the end.

We react to real-life sports dramas all the same. When Division I basketball player Derrick Gordon and NBA baller Jason Collins announced their homosexuality to the world, public opinion was strong on both sides of the bleachers. Clippers owner Donald Sterling's alleged racist comments garnered much heated reaction. Sports inspire strong emotion, a fact that translates well for both the big screen and smaller theater stages.

Hints of discrimination in the sports arena cast the offenders as the losers and the victims as the underdogs. In spite of Lou's extreme prejudice with regards to Islam, the underdogs in Pray to Ball are both Hakeem and Lou, two young black men struggling to defy the odds of poverty and prejudice. Lou's fondness for Hakeem is so strong it is plausible that anything or anyone that stands in the way of their friendship would be marked for Lou'€™s relentless derision.

For this reason, the religious premise for Pray to Ball is not as refined as it was intended to be. Do not expect to see Islam playing defense against a broad social context within the play. However, the contenders (concrete or conceptual) and their respective "€œbeefs"€ on and off the court are absolutely defined, much thanks to Bill Mendieta'€™s elucidating storytelling flair. And now that Amir Abdullah has formidably flexed his storytelling muscle, expect to see him scrutinize plots that more suitably sync with life's complexities in his bright future.

Slam Dunks and Other Highlights

PRAY TO BALL, Skylight Theatre CompanyPray to Ball offers brave performances and honest portrayals. Amir Adbullah is a generous player, assisting his cast mates by enhancing their strengths from scene to scene. During his face-off with resident Imam Bilal (Rickie Peete), Lou'€™s mode of speech and actions elevate their level of interaction from casual foes to bitter enemies. Y'€™lan Noel delivers a refreshing realness through Hakeem, and he is definitely an actor to follow. Micaal Stevens choreographs a remarkable climactic scene between Lou and Hakeem that is drenched in vivid lighting (Jeff McLaughlin), and played out on an amazing stage setting.

A Budding Playwright's Paradise

Skylight Theatre Company developed Pray to Ball through its reputable INKubator program. Amir Abdullah's submission was chosen over hundreds--a testament to Adbullah's raw storytelling talent. The Skylight Theatre Company develops gifted artists like Abdullah, offering writers a space and guidance to explore and grow their craft.

Watch notable performances, and witness Lou and Hakeem score an impressive 90 percent of their hoop shots on stage!

Written by Tasha Moore
Tuesday, 29 April 2014 10:16