How mortal Gods can be: “The Half-God of Rainfall”

This trailer is so cool!
Presented by American Repertory Theater
A co-production with the New York Theatre Workshop
By Inua Ellams
Directed by Taibi Magar
Movement Direction by Orlando Pabotoy
Orisha Movement Consulting/Choreography by Beatrice Capote
Intimacy Direction by Ann James
Voice & Dialect Direction by Dawn-Elin Fraser
Dramaturgy by Iyvon E.
Projection design by Tal Yarden
Physical therapy by Artistic Athlete Health Collective

Sept. 8 – 24, 2023
Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle Street
Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA

This production contains haze, fog, flashing lights, and loud sounds, and stages sexual and physical violence. A.R.T. recommends it for ninth grade and up.

Review by Kitty Drexel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The American Repertory Theater presents Inua Ellams’ The Half-God of Rainfall at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square through Sept. 24. Directed by Taibi Magar, it tackles human concerns of identity, immortality, and generational trauma through the marriage of Greek and Yoruba storytelling and NBA basketball. 

The Half-God of Rainfall is about Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), a half-Nigerian/half-Greek son of serial abuser, Zeus King of the Greek Gods. Demi reconciles his holy parentage as he achieves fame and fortune as an NBA player. His journey takes him from rural Nigeria, across the United States, to Mount Olympus. 

The Half-God of Rainfall isn’t only about Dem’s flash and glam. It is also about his mother Modupe’s (Jennifer Mogbock with forearms out of the MCU and the acting talents of a trickster goddess) resiliency. While Demi is the focal figure who we watch keenly as the story unfolds. Modupe, through love and pain, quietly catalyzes a restructuring of power within the Heavens.

Life begins with a mother, a person with hopes and dreams. A mother deserves the choice to become pregnant if she wishes it. Unfortunately, many women are stripped of their choice. Modupe is such a woman. 

Despite divine protection from the great river goddess, Osun (Patrice Johnson Chevannes commanding the stage in an ocean dress that makes her look like a goddess in her own right). Despite a lifetime of devotion to the great gods and goddesses of Yoruba culture, Modupe catches the attentions of King Zeus (Michael Laurence) and becomes a single mother who must carry and support her child alone. The cast also features Jason Bowen, Kelley Curran, and Russell G. Jones.

The cast begins the show by introducing themselves by name and character assignation. From their first lines, they erect and then dismantle the 4th wall at will. Ellams cleverly staged the actors to indicate with their bodies as well as their voices who they are and when.

Ellams and Magar seamlessly weaved different staging styles to create one whole work of art that expands the theatre storytellers’ toolkit. The characters tell us what they are doing and how they will do it as the action occurs onstage. To this geek, it looked and sounded like LARPing or another collaborative roleplaying game. The staging with Beatrice Capote’s choreography effectively communicated the story and it looked fun for the actors. Very Marvel cinematic universe in 3D. 

Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Jennifer Mogbock, and Mister Fitzgerald in The Half-God of Rainfall. Photo: Lauren Miller

Quite fortunately for this theatre geek, one does not need to know much about basketball to appreciate The Half-God of Rainfall. (Is basketball the one with rackets? Do they weave the baskets underwater first?) Everything you need to know about basketball, you can obtain by watching the Space Jam movies: Michael Jordan, Lebron James, locker room interviews, point guard, deification by sports fans, and corporate sponsorships. All things perpetually floating through the oozing miasma of society’s cultural consciousness. 

Basketball’s significance in the play rests not on what the sport is but on what the sport represents. Playwright Inua Ellams uses it to communicate the human obsession with affluence, immortality, and fame. Basketball can lift the right player out of intergenerational poverty. An NBA career, if correctly negotiated, can assure access to education for generations. No one need ever starve again.    

The projection design by Tal Yarden and the lighting design by Stacey Derosier are truly exceptional. Parts of the set design look 3D only to be revealed as refracted light on a backdrop. Their work is Tupac-hologram levels of inspiring. 

Both technical factions function to transport the performers and the audience from one location to another faster than the eye can blink. A rapid travel sequence between Demi and the trickster Elegba (Russell G. Jones wearing many hats) sees the characters fly from Earth to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. The light and projection assisted by Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design took our characters on a spiritual journey of divine perspective while offering the audience a philosophical one at the same time. 

It seems like most Greek myths are about Zeus assaulting one woman or another. The poets loved abusing women to explain Zeus’ many children: Leda, Europa, Danae, Antiope, and even his own sister Demeter.  The ancient poets skip over the trauma of Zeus’ victims.

Sexual assault is depicted in this play. Playwright Magar and intimacy director Ann James compassionately and respectfully staged the assault scene to depict it from a woman’s perspective. The scene depicts what rape is to a victim, not what it looks like from a voyeur’s deranged perspective. 

Instead, Magar and James’ staging humanizes the female character. We see how broken she is and the scars the rapist left. We understand that her rape isn’t about pleasure; rape is about power and violently taking what isn’t offered.

Gratuitous physical violence need not be glorified for the sake of “authentic storytelling.” Magar and James show us only what is necessary. The scene is impactful and truthful without causing harm.

RAINN says on its website that an American is assaulted every 68 seconds. Sexual assault is prolific. The Half-God of Rainfall isn’t unique for its inclusion of rape; it’s unique because a victim seeks justice, obtains justice, and then isn’t punished for it. 

Kicking ass, taking names: Jennifer Mogbock and Michael Laurence in The Half-God of Rainfall. Photo: Lauren Miller

Women just don’t get that kind of win. Not in the factual, patriarchal justice system rigged against them and not in mainstream stories curated by men. Thank you playwright Ellams for giving women the opportunity at justice!  It took an epic poem by Ellams for the women of Greece, priestesses of Nigeria, and Black single mothers burdened with a baby they didn’t want to but chose to love any way to receive the justice they deserved.

The Half-God of Rainfall is a retribution story. It is about the fickleness of the gods and humanity’s sheer insignificance within the history of the cosmos. It is a story of fallen gods and fighting spirits. Its design elements will impress many a fan of fantastical design. Its plot will (hopefully) madden more conservative theatre-goers. And, it has basketball if you like that sort of thing. 

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