'The Half-God of Rainfall' review: Basketball under the heavens

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'The Half-God of Rainfall' review: Basketball under the heavens
Mister Fitzgerald, center, as a demigod who lives on earth as a basketball player in “The Half-God of Rainfall,” at New York Theater Workshop in New York, July 25, 2023. Borrowing its powers from Greek and Yoruba mythologies, Inua Ellams’s play tells the story of a demigod who becomes an NBA superstar. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- Turning verse into action is tricky, especially with ideas as lofty as the ones in Inua Ellams’ epic poem “The Half-God of Rainfall,” now appearing in theatrical guise at New York Theater Workshop.

The poem is a melodious, sky-high tale of a basketball superstar born as a result of a celestial contest between the Greek and Yoruba gods of thunder, Zeus and Sango. But the stage adaptation, which opened Monday, runs into some flaws that, while not fatal, strand this Nigerian writer’s work in the mortal realm.

A storm of plot and themes is squeezed into an intermission-less 90 minutes: After defeating Sango (Jason Bowen) in a race, Zeus (Michael Laurence) has his pick of Sango’s subjects. To Hera’s (Kelley Curran) defeated disdain, Zeus rapes Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock), a Nigerian woman, and soon the mixed-race half-god Demi (Mister Fitzgerald) is born.

Neighborhood boys ostracize Demi, who can turn the soil to swamp with his tears. But he gradually comes into his powers and makes his way to the Golden State Warriors, learning about other demigods who had to suppress their own supernatural talents on the court. Demi’s growing celebrity eventually lands him face to face with Zeus, providing a chance to avenge his mother.

As the deities Elegba and Osún (Lizan Mitchell and Patrice Johnson Chevannes, fantastic as always) narrate Demi’s ascent to sports stardom, they intersperse meditations on the gendered violence that permeates Greek mythology, and later, on the imperialist violence the West perpetrated to obscure African traditions.

Ellams’ scope is staggering, and he mostly pulls it off. Each line, heavy with information and emotion, is shot back and forth by the able actors, who turn Ellams’ vibrant, poetic flow into a nonstop athletic match.

But there are few scenes of interactions between characters — instead presentational, narration-driven exposition makes up the bulk of the play. And Taibi Magar’s direction displays an uncertain grasp over whether the piece should play naturally or at a distance: There’s the work’s traditional methods of self-aware, oral storytelling — having the cast address the audience, and change into Linda Cho’s athleisure costumes onstage — and the production’s sumptuous, almost immersive elements, courtesy of Stacey Derosier’s lighting, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound and especially Tal Yarden’s gorgeous projections.

Though Orlando Pabotoy’s fluid movement direction, along with Beatrice Capote’s Orisha choreography, strikes a powerful balance between the seamless and more Brechtian styles, the production finds itself stuck between them.

I was reminded of Ellams’ “Icarus,” a short piece presented during the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in 2021. It transformed the parable into the heartbreaking tale of a young Nigerian refugee who, detained at an Italian entry point, takes to the sky. Recited by just two performers, the work, in its simplicity, soared. The poignancy and concision left me wanting a one-by-one re-envisioning of Greek mythology through a contemporary African diasporic lens.

Ellams certainly has it in him to assemble a universe of distinctive characters connected by their shared humanity, as he proved in his globe-trotting play “Barber Shop Chronicles.” But here, his ideas, vast and evocative as they are on the page, overwhelm the story onstage, and the sheer amount of talking at the audience becomes draining. Ninety minutes becomes too long for one solidly conveyed story; too short for an entire pantheon of players.

His interest in and approach to mixing and remixing Western and African traditions is fascinating, however. This is a writer whose intuitive understanding of the common threads of tradition, globalization and human instinct could very well create a new mythological tapestry for our interwoven times.

‘The Half-God of Rainfall’

Through Aug. 20 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; nytw.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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