Review: THE HALF-GOD OF RAINFALL is a Compelling Blend of Myth and Reality

Now onstage at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through September 24.

By: Sep. 16, 2023
Review: THE HALF-GOD OF RAINFALL is a Compelling Blend of Myth and Reality
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Poet and playwright Inua Ellams’ epic poem, the riveting drama “The Half-God of Rainfall” – now at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through September 24 – takes a deep dive into mythology to connect the disarray brought on by angry gods with the senseless violence committed by men in reality.

Originally conceived as a one-person show, the current American Repertory Theater and New York Theatre Workshop co-production is under the taut direction of Taibi Magar.

Calling on his own early background as a young Nigerian basketball player, Ellams’ arresting blend of Greek and Yoruba mythology centers on Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), a basketball star with supernatural sports prowess, whose god-like tears can render a basketball court little more than mud. However, Demi’s seemingly all-but-guaranteed place in the pantheon of NBA legends  is complicated by the fact that divine powers have no home in mortal sports.

Demi is half man, half god – the son of Zeus (Michael Laurence) and Modúpé who became pregnant after being raped by the sky and thunder god. Demi’s magical abilities place him in the celestial spotlight where he cannot escape a confrontation with the angry gods. He must take up the mortal challenge of facing down these all-powerful beings, and only with his indomitable mother’s love does he have a chance.

So while Demi is often at center stage, this drama is also compellingly focused on its female characters representing the generations upon generations of women who have been held back, often abused, by men in positions of power. Ellams’ distinctive writing lays this out in clear, compelling terms, making it impossible to look away from the damage wrought by continued structural inequality with its roots in the ages, and reminding us of the true power of women.

A 2019 London staging of “Half-God” was done with only two actors. In the current version, a cast of seven plays the story’s multiple characters, with the superb, affecting Mister Fitzgerald as Demi, Magar helmed the 2022 A.R.T. season opener, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which successfully transformed the Anna Deavere Smith masterpiece from a one-person play into a multi-actor undertaking, but in her latest A.R.T. effort, the distinction between characters sometimes blurs. In what might be an acknowledgment of this possibility, Magar has the actors break the fourth wall to introduce themselves and their various characters before the play gets underway.

The clarity found in Ellams’ meaningfully layered writing prevails, however, because Magar has assembled a uniformly excellent cast. In addition to Mister Fitzgerald, other stand-outs include Jennifer Mogbock, whose haunting portrayal of Modúpé captures the character’s mix of pain and resilience, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Yoruban goddess Osún. Magar also deftly weaves in scenes of brutality that serve as jarring reminders that violence only begets violence.

Further bringing this layered work to impactful fruition is a top-notch creative team which includes scenic designer Riccardo Hernández and costume designer Linda Cho, whose efforts are complemented by Stacey Derosier’s mood-setting lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design. Also adding considerably to the production is the movement direction provided by both Orlando Pabotoy and Beatrice Capote.

Credit for the overarching impact of this production’s splendid design, however, must go to Tal Yarden, whose evocative, indeed extraordinary, projection designs are a sight to behold.

Photo caption: Mister Fitzgerald (center), Jennifer Mogbock, Kelley Curran, Jason Bowen, and Michael Laurence in “The Half-God of Rainfall.” Photo by Lauren Miller.