By Sarah Downs
The Half-God of Rainfall, by poet Inua Ellams, traces an epic tale that spans generations, time zones and locations, from Nigeria to a US basketball court to Mt. Olympus. Ambitious and complex, the piece is impressive and confounding in equal measure – a measure that can easily tip out of balance. I’m sorry to say that in the current production at the NY Theatre Workshop, the overworked material loses its footing.
It starts with a cringy meet-cute opening where the actors introduce themselves and then tell us which characters they are playing, setting the audience up for discomfort as we hasten to memorize who is playing what, completely out of context, while also setting the actors up for an awkward popularity contest, as each actor is applauded along the way. Great. We’re congratulating ourselves already, and we haven’t even heard a word of the actual text yet. It is a moment which comes off as precious and amateurish, and it is the actors who suffer for it.
Throughout the following 90 minutes, the actors move in and out of the playing space, transforming seamlessly into various characters. At times the multiplicity of characters and overlapping text do make it difficult to keep track, as the actors figuratively and literally change hats while also moving between layers of scene work and poetry. It’s a fine cast. Among the notable performances, Mister Fitzgerald as Demi, a half human/half god, magically gifted basketball player, has endearing sweetness and intensity. In the difficult role of Demi’s mother Modúpé, Jennifer Mogbock conveys strength and vulnerability. In turn, as her mother, the river goddess Osún, Patrice Johnson Chevannes cuts a striking figure, clad in a stunning blue gown, a river of aqua silk flowing from its hem.
Director Taibi Magar creates striking stage pictures, keeping the action going. Danger appears, however, when all the storylines, activity and dense verbiage collide. This would definitely be a moment where ‘less is more’ (my kingdom for a whisper!) but unfortunately we are given ‘more is more.’
The luxurious artistic design saves the day, serenely merging high drama and simplicity. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is a true shape shifter. Its bare walls, singular architectural structure, soft, black sand underfoot and a scrim on three sides of the stage tranforms instantly under the intuitive projections by Tal Yarden, The cascade of images and lighting effects – graffiti-scrawled brick, Ancient Greek stonework, a shower of stars, a pattern of symbols – anchor both space and time. Resplendently lit by Stacey Derosier in rich hues of violet, blues and greens – the set is more than an environment – it is a parallel storyteller, a visual narrator. One that does not need to yell to be heard.
I wish I could say the same for the actors, but they have apparently been directed to orate rather than narrate, which makes it nearly impossible to prioritize the information coming at us. The material feels belabored. Any momentary intimacy created by individual actors either in monologue or scenes finds itself buried under the stentorian approach to the poetry itself. It seems grandeur has been confused with grandiosity. The actors are doing their best, but they have been saddled with a mantle of hubris that not even Atlas could shrug off.
The Half-God of Rainfall, by Inua Ellams, directed by Taibi Magar. With Jason Bowen, Mister Fitzgerald , Patrice Johnson Chevannes , Michael Laurence, Lizan Mitchell, Jennifer Mogbock and Kelley Curran.
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, and projection design by Tal Yarden, Voice and Dialect Direction by Ann James as with Dawn-Elin Fraser as r. Caroline Englander as Stage Manager. Movement direction by Orlando Pabotoy.
At New York Theatre Workshop (79 E 4th Street), running July 31 through August 20, 2023: Tuesday-Thursdays at 7pm; Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm; Sunday at 2pm & 7pm. Runtime 90 minutes, no intermission.
Single tickets start at $35 and vary by performance date and time. Buy tickets at NYTW.org or by calling 212-460-5475. Additionally, a $25 day-of CHEAPTIX RUSH will be available for young people, seniors, artists and Lower East Side residents.
Please Note: The Half-God of Rainfall details but does not depict sexual violence.