Playwright-poet Inua Ellams’ epic poem, The Half-God of Rainfall, is set to movement and speech in a visually arresting, but sometimes inconsistent production by director Taibi Magar at New York Theatre Workshop.
Expanded from a two-person show to a cast of seven and enhanced with movement, the work still feels like its evolving toward its final form. Inspired by Greek and Yoruba mythology, the storytelling is narrated by mortals and gods. The piece blends evocative folk tale-mythology with a contemporary narrative but struggles to seamlessly weave in the critical social issues its addressing and balance the story between mother and son. The result is a mélange of interesting images, ideas, and theatrical moments touching upon power, oppression, trauma, and violence, but lacking cohesion.
The Half-God of Rainfall, is Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), a young basketball prodigy in Nigeria. But the story behind Demi’s powers on the court comes from the violent rape of his mother Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock) by the Greek God of Thunder, Zeus (Michael Laurence). Demi, is Zeus’s bastard son and a demi-god.
Before he is born, Zeus, and the Nigerian God of Thunder, Sángó (Jason Brown) were locked in a battle of egos. We see the gamesmanship of these men trying to prove their power and prowess to each which results in this disgusting pact where the loser is to give a mortal to the winner. Zeus cheats in the game and takes Modúpé. Modúpé has been under the protection of the Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), the River God, but Osún cannot cross Sángó or Zeus to save Modúpé.
Demi’s birth and ongoing presence in Nigeria causes tensions between the warring gods of Olympus and the Orishas (the Yoruba gods). Modúpé takes him to America to play the game he loves. But even there his godlike success on the courts creates more problems for him with the Gods.
With all the mythological world-building and arguing Gods, it leaves us less time in this 90-minute play to fully take-in this young man who cannot catch a break and who must bow to the vicissitudes of the domineering men who control the world around him. Basketball is Demi’s liberation and freedom. It is presented to us that the game means everything to him and he wants vengeance against the gods for what they did to his mother and to him. We see glimpses of his rage but Modúpé shares more of what she has been put through.
The form, with a narrated chapter structure and significant exposition, makes it harder to fall completely under the show’s spell, but the incredible enveloping projections from Tal Yarden, aided by Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, and Orlando Pabotoy’s movement direction, theatricalize the storytelling well.
In a fantastical moment, we leave earth and fly to Olympus, and Yarden’s projections, Sulaiman’s sound, and Pabotoy’s movement convinces us that is what has just happened. When Demi is fighting mystical forces preventing him from making his basketball shot, Fitzgerald’s arms yank and pull in a herky-jerky fashion and we believe in the divine interference. But some odd Greek accents kick us out again.
Riccardo Hernández’s set design is dominated by the stage being covered in black soil with a large bronzed circle in the rafters and surrounded by the projection scrims. The projections help to specify the space whether the NBA championships, the makeshift basketball court in Nigeria, or lined with classical statues symbolizing Olympus.
When the show moves towards its tragic conclusion, there is a strong message to be delivered by Ellams. The victims of the Gods’ games fight to reclaim their power. But in the midst of this painful subject, a mention of basketball comes back. But after it feels shoehorned in in a way that is disrespectful to what has just come before.
Demi and Modúpé are both abused by the gods. But sexual trauma is all too often used as a catalyst in narratives for character’s actions without any serious unpacking of that trauma. There is an attempt here to let Modúpé speak of what this trauma is to her which is important. But it feels odd to return to the topic of basketball in the show’s coda with her. Even if in tribute to her son. There was a mismatch here that was hard to reconcile.
Naturally, using mythology, we are in the realm of symbols but not all of the play’s symbolism sits as easily with each other.