Review: Basketball Courts Are the Pantheon of Actual Gods in The Half-God of Rainfall

Inua Ellams’s mythological examination of hubris and oppression makes its off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Jennifer Mogbock, Kelley Curran, Mister Fitzgerald, Jason Bowen, Michael Laurence and Lizan Mitchell in New York Theatre Workshop's THE HALF GOD OF RAINFALL, Photo by Joan Marcus
Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Jennifer Mogbock, Kelley Curran, Mister Fitzgerald, Jason Bowen, Michael Laurence, and Lizan Mitchell in Inua Ellams’s The Half-God of Rainfall, directed by Taibi Magar, at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Joan Marcus)

It’s relatively common to hear basketball aficionados refer to their heroes in superhuman terms. In his new play The Half-God of Rainfall, Inua Ellams takes that idea one step further by basing those claims of divinity in the real world, at least in a world in which the gods of Greek and Nigerian mythology do actually exist, commingle, and occasionally get into a skirmish with one another and humans. What better way to explain Michael Jordan’s ability to “fly” than to say he was a half-god.

But Ellams has more in mind than telling a fanciful story about why the hero of his play, Demi (Mister Fitzgerald in an impressive performance), plays basketball with godlike perfection. He was born after Zeus (Michael Laurence) violently raped his mother, Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock), a high priestess of the Nigerian river goddess Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). While in classical myths sexual assaults are often glossed over, Ellams makes Zeus’s act a central theme, an act that even a god deserves to die for.

At the beginning, the cast (standing in the black sand of Riccardo Hernández’s set) introduce themselves and their characters to familiarize us with the many names of deities we’re about to hear, and tell us that what we’re witnessing is an epic poem — a tough thing to make into engaging theater by any stretch. The actors often narrate the action (Orlando Pabotoy has contributed lively movement direction) before slipping into character and interacting with each other. It’s normally the sort of mind-numbing staginess that gets me thinking about my shopping list.

Mister Fitzgerald and Lizan Mitchell in The Half-God of Rainfall
(© Joan Marcus)

But director Taibi Magar makes this mode of storytelling feel fluid and momentous, as though we’re listening to rhapsodists from another time slip in and out of ancient and modern vernaculars. The marvelous Chevannes (costumed in a divine blue dress by Linda Cho) is particularly adept moving between narrator and goddess. Lizan Mitchell, regal as always, brings her stately presence and breezy humor to her role as the Nigerian trickster god Elegba, and Jason Bowen, as Zeus’s nemesis — the Nigerian thunder god Sàngó — gives us a divinity seething with wounded pride. Magar also keeps the stage action brisk with Mikaal Sulaiman’s thunderous sound design, Stacey Derosier’s scintillating lighting, and Tal Yarden’s kaleidoscopic projection design. If only The Iliad were this much fun.

That’s not to say that The Half-God of Rainfall tells a consistent story throughout. The show appears to be about Demi, who unleashes torrential rains from the sky whenever he has a mood swing. As his b-ball prowess takes him to one championship after another and eventually to the Olympics in 2012, Demi develops an overweening pride that seems fit for pruning by the gods. A sudden twist, however, shows us that the whole time this story has really been about Demi’s mother, Zeus’s wife Hera (Kelley Curran), and the quest to exact revenge on Zeus for his countless sexual assaults (Mogbock moves us as she recounts his attack of Modúpé in a powerful monologue). It’s a blatant condemnation of white oppressors and of powerful men who believe that anyone is theirs for the taking, sexually or otherwise.

Then again, ancient myths are rarely consistent from beginning to end, and they are often not as engaging as Ellams’s story, which blends our modern-day world with the ancient in provocative if occasionally heavy-handed ways. The Half-God of Rainfall is at once an entertainment and a lesson, and that’s exactly what an epic poem should be.

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