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Theatre in Review: The Half-God of Rainfall (New York Theatre Workshop)

Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Jennifer Mogbock. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The last time we encountered playwright Inua Ellams, the occasion was Borders and Crossings, a modest, but pointed and powerful, collection of poems, featured in an online presentation at the Under the Radar Festival in the pandemic year of 2021. Ellams enjoys a much higher profile in the UK, where his Barber Shop Chronicles, produced at the National Theatre, was ecstatically received, and his version of Three Sisters also garnered a fair amount of praise. I can't help feeling that, in the new production at New York Theatre Workshop, we're not getting him at his best. The Half-God of Rainfall is an ambitious poetic narrative that steadfastly resists coming to life onstage; despite the determined efforts of director Tabi Magar and her cast and design team, the production remains steadfastly remote.

For The Half-God of Rainfall, Ellams invents his own cosmology, drawing on three sets of existing deities: the Yoruban gods rooted in Nigerian culture; the original Olympians (Zeus, Hera, and that lot), and the stars of the NBA. (On another day, we will contemplate why so many current plays -- including King James and Flex -- display such a fascination with basketball; this is something we haven't seen before.) The title character, Demi, is the product of rape, his mother, Modúpé, having been assaulted by Zeus. This terrible event is set up by an involved backstory, involving Modúpé being protected from the attentions of mortal men thanks to the oversight of the Yoruban river goddess Osún; nevertheless, the arrangement doesn't save her from the toxic effects of a rivalry between Zeus and Sángó, the Yoruban god of war. Exactly why this is, you'll have to discover for yourself, if you can; the play throws so many unfamiliar figures at the audience that, by the time one has sorted them out, we are deep into the action, struggling to catch up.

Anyway, Demi is blessed -- or, depending on how you look at it, cursed -- with two gifts: an unfailing knack for scoring when shooting hoops and the ability to call up floods of water when emotionally aroused. Nicknamed the Rainman, he become a star on US courts. But there's a catch: Sángó, dropping into Demi's locker room, warns the young man about a clause in the astral contract that prevents godly beings from competing, athletically, with mere mortals. Demi won't hear a word about it, but his rebellion is futile, leading to a disastrous performance at the Olympics and a violent intervention by Zeus, the latter of which triggers a revolution among the immortals.

It's a complicated story told in Homeric style, beginning in medias res and then jumping backward in time before hurtling forward toward a battle that plays out rather like something out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As we saw in Borders and Crossings, Ellams is a formidable talent and, on the page, certain passages sparkle. A group of hoops-loving Nigerian youths, we are told, "practice trash-talking, those dark boys, skin singing to the heat." Men, maddened with desire for the untouchable Modúpé, would "see the full moon beaming to the rippling and pristine waters where she bathed. The water, like liquid diamonds, cocooned her with light." Demi, vowing to defy the gods, declares, "There will be gusts of drowning darkness blowing, climbing over hills, valleys, and cities towards Olympus. The earth will part, water will walk, I will crest its waves till Olympus falls and the reckoning of my birth is answered."

Nevertheless, what unfolds onstage at New York Theatre Workshop is a convoluted narrative populated by a gallery of remote figures, the well-known Zeus and Hera being no more vividly drawn than their lesser-known Yoruban counterparts. Demi is oddly irrelevant to his own story, showing up late and vanishing before the climax. The lack of specificity is a major problem; the play's central premise, which involves the overthrowing, by outraged women, of a patriarchal system, is hardly novel in today's theatre, but clearer storytelling and more incisive characterizations would put some much-needed flesh on its bones.

Ellams has said that he was inspired by An Iliad, the Denis O'Hare -- Lisa Peterson solo piece derived from Homer, and indeed The Half-God of Rainfall might work better in that format, ideally without the thick, stagy accents used here. But when you have a company that includes Jason Bowen, Kelley Curran, Mister Fitzgerald, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Michael Laurence, and Lizan Mitchell, and the piece isn't engaging, something has gone seriously wrong. (Jennifer Mogbock, a new face, is striking as Modúpé, who is, alternately, maternal, victimized, and battle-ready as the script demands.)

Magar's design team delivers a constantly shifting environment that adeptly meets the narrative's demands. Riccardo Hernandez's set, a bare space with a dirt floor and three scrim walls, serves as an effective surface for Tal Yarden's projections of oceans, starry skies, the US and Olympic flags, and crowded arenas. Stacey Desrosier delivers one of her most inventive lighting designs, working with (among other things), a circular set of overhead units to deliver stark isolations, busts of colorful sidelight, and dozens of graceful transitions. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes the strategic use of reverb as well effects that include cheering crowds, crying babies, and hip-hop music. Linda Cho's stylized costumes bridge the play's multiple realities while presenting each actor attractively.

Magar's staging has many moments of invention: Modúpé, attacked by Zeus, is ensnared in a bolt of blue fabric, which falls to the floor. Picking it up, she wraps it into a bundle that, accompanied by an appropriate sound effect, becomes the infant Demi. But one leaves the theatre remembering the staging and design, not the story and characters. The Half-God of Rainfall is, in many ways, an impressive theatrical frieze, but its figures never quicken into compelling characters. For gods, they remain strangely powerless. -- David Barbour

(7 August 2023)

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