'The Half-God of Rainfall' review — mythologies collide in this poetic epic
Read our four-star review of Inua Ellams's The Half-God of Rainfall, a Greek and African mythology-inspired play playing off Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop.
Blending Nigerian and Greek mythologies, Inua Ellams’s The Half-God of Rainfall sees multiple gods step forward from a seven-person ensemble. It is rare that the trust and communication among an ensemble shines through in their work, but the cast of Half-God seems to meld and move together, even when their characters are in conflict. Much of this charismatic connection comes from movement director Orlando Pabotoy’s choreography, which turns Ellams’s epic poem into dance theatre. Taibi Magar directs the thoughtful, meticulous New York Theatre Workshop and American Repertory Theater co-production.
For those weary of Greek theatre, take heart in the fact that Half-God grounds its story in basketball, using the sport as the backdrop for a war between men and mortals. Nigerian children, including Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), take the sport seriously and try to make their neighborhood games NBA-caliber; Demi is helped by his supernatural strength and precision, as he is the son of Zeus (Michael Laurence).
A journey to California and then the Olympics solidifies Demi’s place in basketball history, but other gods believe he is cheating. Nigerian American player Hakeem Olajuwon (Jason Bowen) appears to Demi and confesses that all great players are really half-gods, but that they’d signed a pact to stop competing with humans after Michael Jordan took flight on the court. “Grandfather had to wipe memories,” he says. The storyline mocks the grandeur of American sports culture, but never in a patronizing way, as if Ellams is in on the joke.
Audience members don’t have to be well-versed in basketball to appreciate the allegory of the game, which Sángó, a Nigerian thunder god, trains for by reading The Art of War. The actors narrate their characters’ actions and also speak their dialogue, which at times is superfluous and confusing. But Ellams’s language flows, for the most part, like Pabotoy’s choreography and the luscious fabric that symbolizes rivers stage. Like the ensemble, the show’s designers collaborate to create one cohesive being, with each discipline still allowed its moment in the spotlight, like scenic designer Riccardo Hernández’s rain or costume designer Linda Cho’s Statue of Liberty-inspired gown for the Yoruba river goddess Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Tal Yarden’s projection design is particularly adept, drawing in the audience with recurring motifs that keep us grounded in specific locations or times.
In the end, the story is led not by Demi, but by his mother Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock, who also serves as dance captain), a priestess of Osún who captivates the power-hungry Zeus. Like other women before her, Modúpé becomes a victim of Zeus, bearing a half-god and wavering between grief and joy, content with her child but saddled with the weight of his violent conception. Pabotoy’s choreography for this violence is a reminder of the power of gesture, exchanging the literal for the subtler but piercing hearts all the same.
It is Modúpé’s pain and power that leads the story to a climax, though the phrasing of the concluding feminist faceoff is a bit awkward. The stilted dialogue threatens to undercut Half-God’s impact, but Magar’s production is too beautiful to be held down for long. Ellams’s meditation on whose stories are told and how is as powerful as the waters Osún and Modúpé command.
Photo credit: Jason Bowen, Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Jennifer Mogbock in The Half-God of Rainfall. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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