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The Half-God of Rainfall

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 31, 2023

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and
Jennifer Mogbock

Photo by Joan Marcus
For basketball aficionados, the all-time great players–LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and others on the deified short list of the NBA pantheon–are not mere mortals. They are supreme and transcendent beings. Inua Ellams's The Half-God of Rainfall, currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop in a co-production with American Repertory Theatre, affirms these mythic genealogies. In fact, his play, which had its London premiere in 2019, centers on an actual god, or rather a demigod, who becomes a record-breaking point guard while simultaneously upsetting the supernatural world.

The titular character Demi (Mister Fitzgerald) was conceived as a result of the rape of Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock), a Nigerian woman, by the omnipotent Greek god Zeus (Michael Laurence). Demi is, as the play's storytellers explain, "Half Nigerian mortal. Half Grecian God. Half-child of Zeus. Half-lord of river waters. He would grow to possess odd gifts." These gifts include not just tremendous talent on the basketball court, but also an ability to cause rivers to overflow and for villages to flood with his copious tears.

Nurtured and mentored by Orisha gods and goddesses such as Òrúnmilà (Lizan Mitchell, who also plays Elegba), Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), and Sàngó (Jason Bowen), Demi grows up to become Nigeria's star player for the 2012 London Olympics. Zeus's meddling and needling wife Hera (Kelley Curran), however, stokes almighty resentments and stirs Demi's all-too human hubris. The consequence is a clash of titans from Greek and Yoruba mythology that has monumental repercussions.

As with the best examples drawn from classical mythology and heroic ballads, Ellams's epic poem imaginatively connects the metaphysical and natural worlds in addition to the ancient and the contemporary realms. In addition to drawing parallels between basketball maneuvering and war strategizing, Half-God also addresses issues of colonialism, sexual assault, and empowerment of women. Typically, victims of Zeus's rapes were passive victims, but even as a mortal woman, Modúpé is unafraid to exact her revenge against the most powerful being in the universe.

Directed by Taibi Magar, the exceptional cast narrates the tale, and even as they assume individual characters in the story, they often describe their actions in the third person. Admittedly, there were occasions I was glad to have a copy of the script because the chronological back and forth (which is characteristic of Homeric epics as well) caused some confusion. Nevertheless, with movement direction by Orlando Pabotoy and choreography by Beatrice Capote (who also served as the Orisha movement consultant), there is an impressive theatricality. The text's muscular and resonant free verse is given vibrant life by the undulating, swirling, and athletic physicality.

The scenic design by Recardo Hernández combines ritualistic elements with secular references. Indeed, the playing space is a large rectangular arena filled with black sand, and hovering above is a large circular halo that also calls to mind a basketball hoop sans net. Tal Yarden's projections and Linda Cho's alternately playful and regal costume design effectively convey the collapse of time and space. Stacey Derosier's lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design add to the atmospheric effectiveness. At several points during the presentation, all the performance components coalesce to create gorgeous and spectacular effects. One of those moments, for instance, involves a voluminous blue cape that, while manipulated by cast members, evokes the awesome power of a river goddess. It is quite stunning as is the climactic battle between Modúpé and Zeus.

The Half-God of Rainfall is tangentially about basketball, but like the other basketball-inspired plays from this season, specifically King James and Flex, one does not need to be a fan or even knowledgeable of the sport. In Ellams's imagination, power, subjugation, and tactical gamesmanship plays out in a much bigger arena.

The Half-God of Rainfall
Through August 20, 2023
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: