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There’s been a resurgence in mythology-inspired media in recent years: Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series, Madeline Miller’s novel “The Song of Achilles,” and Anaïs Mitchell’s musical “Hadestown.” Some may consider adaptations of mythology to be a tired concept, but playwright and poet Inua Ellams breathes new air into the concept by combining and reshaping Greek mythology, Yoruba spirituality, and basketball into a stunning new epic play, “The Half-God of Rainfall.”
“The Half-God of Rainfall” introduces the Greek pantheon and the Òrìṣà, which are personified natural forces in Yoruba spirituality. The play follows Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), the demigod son of Zeus (Michael Laurence), who is the king of the Greek Gods, and Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock), a Nigerian high priestess who worships Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), also known as the river Orisha. Demi grows up in Nigeria, plays basketball, and immigrates to America to join the NBA. Presented by the American Repertory Theater and New York Theatre Workshop, and directed by Taibi Magar, “The Half-God of Rainfall” runs through Sept. 24 at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. The play is a slam-dunk hit, with Ellams and Magar successfully transporting their audience through a 90-minute spectacle.
Ellams borrows from old mythology to create something new. The entire play is structured like one of Homer’s epics, with actors announcing a change in Book at certain junctures. Beyond that, Ellams writes with poetic language and rich imagery that rolls off the actors’ tongues like spoken word. Structured in the form of an epic poem, “The Half-God of Rainfall” centers a new kind of myth: the story of an immigrant, a person who struggles to exist in two places at once.
The play riffs on age-old questions present in the classical canon, such as the struggle between fate and agency, and the struggle between gods and men. Woven throughout debates about whether violence begets violence and the way that gods play dice with the lives of mortals, Ellams poses more contemporary questions that only work because of his creative reshaping. As Demi skyrockets in fame in the NBA, and then the Olympics, the play asks: Should we deify our athletes?
Within that new mythology, though, is incisive commentary on violation and colonization; of countries, bodies, and minds. Zeus, who rapes Modúpé, is an allegory for patriarchy and colonial violence. When Zeus forces himself on Modúpé, conceiving Demi, anguished monologues and well-choreographed staging convey palpable rage and distress. Mogbock, in particular, is outstanding in her portrayal of her conflicting emotions: the love she has for Demi and the pain and trauma that she carries from his conception.
A bank of black gravel covers the stage of the Loeb Drama Center for “The Half-God of Rainfall,” and this scenic design is an ingenious idea. The material is versatile, bringing astroturf to mind during the basketball scenes and providing more realism to the scenes set along the riverbank or in nature. Perhaps the tactile nature of the gravel could have been utilized more throughout the story, adding more dimension to what was otherwise a minimalist staging. Still, the scenic design by Riccardo Hernández was ultimately successful.
Though professional basketball and Greek mythology seem firmly unrelated, Ellams combines modern experiences and ancient stories beautifully. Ellams plays on the nickname “rainman” for a basketballer that rains shots into the hoop, and this metaphor gives way to beautiful passages throughout the epic. Some of the strongest scenes occur during the choreographed basketball scenes as the characters narrate the action with lyrical lines that combine natural imagery and rhythmic beats. The basketball scenes were also some of the funniest scenes with references to basketball greats like Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale — injecting delightful levity into the performance.
Despite utilizing few props and set pieces, the production was visually beautiful. The sparse staging emphasized Ellams’ rich language, and props are often more abstract, allowing the audience to use their imagination and extrapolate the setting for themselves.
While Demi is the lead character, “The Half-God of Rainfall” is, at its core, a story about women. It is a powerful, compelling story of women’s suffering and how they wield their pain and love and turn it into power. Women are the driving force of the story. Modúpé and Osún are chief among the people who fight to protect Demi and who are champions in their own right. Hera (Kelley Curran) is compelling in her frustration with Zeus, portraying the Queen of the Greek Gods with elegance and restraint. However, the climactic final scene, which pits the women against Zeus, felt underwhelming, perhaps due to a sudden acceleration in the pacing of the final third of the play that made the ending feel somewhat rushed.
Nevertheless, “The Half-God of Rainfall” is not a play to miss. With its skillful script and stunning production, it wrestles with issues and themes that will surely leave its audience thinking about it long after they leave the theater.
The American Repertory Theater’s and New York Theatre Workshop’s co-production of “The Half-God of Rainfall” runs through Sept. 24 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass.
—Staff writer Angelina X. Ng can be reached at email@example.com
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