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Greek gods, Yoruba deities and a basketball star take to the court in ‘The Half-God of Rainfall’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Greek gods, Yoruba deities and a basketball star take to the court in ‘The Half-God of Rainfall’
Patrice Johnson Chevannes (standing) and Jennifer Mogbock in New York Theatre Workshop’s “The Half-God of Rainfall.” PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS

Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams’ work “The Half-God of Rainfall” defies definition. In this epic-poem-turned-performance, Greek gods and Yoruba deities mix and the half-god, half-Nigerian-mortal protagonist is an all-star NBA player. Playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge this month, a co-production with the New York Theatre Workshop, the show will tug heartstrings and net strings.

“‘The Half-God of Rainfall’ has been described as an epic revenge fantasy, a meditation on power and patriarchy, a Black feminist response to the #metoo movement,” writes Ellams in a reflection on the play. “Mixing Yoruba mythology with Greek mythology, basketball urban lore with spiritual belief, and Homeric aesthetic with sporting hysteria … the story is mammoth.”

The idea to infuse basketball into this narrative stems from Ellams’ love of the game, but the court is the catalyst for a much larger story. In typical Greek mythology fashion, there is tension between Zeus, always volatile and jealous, and his talented half-god son Demi. As soon as Demi starts to show talent on the basketball court, with the flurry of devoted fans that comes with that, Zeus gets angry.

A scene from New York Theatre Workshop’s “The Half-God of Rainfall.” PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS

Jennifer Mogbock plays Modúpé, mother of Demi. “I feel like she is a woman that represents so many things,” says Mogbock. “She represents Black women who have had their children be murdered. She represents parents in general — mother, father, anyone that’s raising and trying to do their best. She represents the immigrant experience.”

Modúpé’s story starts like many women’s in mythology. She’s raped by Zeus, which results in her half-god son Demi. But unlike those stories, Modúpé finds her power. When Zeus comes raging after Demi, she and the other women in Demi’s life are the ones that protect him.

“Sometimes as a dark-skinned woman that’s an actor, I get scared to be pigeon-holed or typecast into a trope of a suffering Black woman,” says Mogbock. “I think what surprised me about [Modúpé] is how she navigates around the different obstacles the world throws at her. It’s not just tears, it’s reflection.”

“The Half-God of Rainfall” runs at the American Repertory Theater Sept. 8-24. The performance is written as an epic poem, and it’s staged the same way. Juxtaposing verses of poetry and the elevated emotions of gods with the rhythmic dribble of the basketball draws a line between the contemporary and the ancient.

“Our story is more than a play about Black dynamics and race dynamics,” says Mogbock. “I hope [audiences] leave feeling connected to the story in a personal way, and feel changed, feel empowered, feel excited.”