This past Friday night, an audiotape allegedly capturing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments against black people surfaced. His team, which has been on a winning streak, staged a silent protest at its Sunday afternoon game. Only a couple hours later, one of the leads in Amir Abdullah's college basketball drama Pray to Ball - which debuted this weekend - exploded, "School's makin' money off our black asses!"
Congratulations. Pray to Ball wins the award for best timing of the season.
Though racism in sports is worthy fodder, Abdullah's very fine if overlong play simply uses the basketball court as a jumping-off place. Lou (Abdullah) and Hakeem (Y'lan Noel) are best friends from the projects who are now the "dream team" at a university in Miami. At first, visions of weather, women and both kinds of green (weed and cash) fill their heads. But when tragedy strikes, Hakeem finds himself more drawn to a flier for the Muslim Student Association than one for a "Sin City" party at a strip club.
Abdullah's first full-length work is ambitious; occasionally, the fact that he's taken too big a bite shows. Act 1 seems never-ending, and a few scenes and storylines (especially a visit from a mixtape rapper and Lou's drama with his girlfriend) should be nixed entirely or at least condensed.
But cut that fat, and Abdullah has written a lean, mean drama. He handles massive, big-ticket issues like religion, politics, love, racism and acceptance with aplomb and humor. Hakeem imagines the mystic Rumi as an O.G. pimp. In another scene, Lou offers a McRib to Hakeem as a peace offering. And, though occasionally the actors deliver it a little stiffly, his dialogue is quick and believable.
Jeff McLaughlin's gorgeous set, which looks so much like a hardwood court we had to inspect it closer, and Hana Kim's video projections, which demarcate spaces without costly set changes, are visually stimulating and transport the audience. The preshow music, Drake's "Started From the Bottom" and Gunplay's "Bible on the Dash," is hip and indicative.
Which leads us to the show's biggest accomplishment. Abdullah and director Bill Mendieta have created a play that finally appeals to a younger audience. We've been making a plea for such a show, and this one is a breath of fresh air. Sure, it's timely. Yet it also deals intelligently with universal themes, and that's what will ensure timelessness - a much harder shot to sink.
Skylight Theatre Company, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; thru May 25; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; (213) 761-7061, skylighttix.com.
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