Play: The Half God of Rainfall
Theatre: Kiln Theatre
Playwright: Inua Ellams
Director: Nancy Medina
Review by Joy Francis
After storming the National with Barber Shop Chronicles, which makes a UK comeback at The Roundhouse this summer, Inua Ellams’ latest production The Half God of Rainfall mines his poetic roots in a stunning ode to basketball, African Gods – and women.
Named after a character in one of his old poems, Of All The Boys of Plateau Private School, the play is a fantastical tale, rooted in harsh reality and mythical gods, weaving poetry and storytelling to dissect otherness, identity and belonging.
Demi (Kwami Odoom) is obsessed with basketball. He is also a half Nigerian-mortal and half Greek-God. Unaware of his lineage, he is armed with unexplained powers, where his tears lead to flooding and his anger stirs up storms.
Desperate to prove his worth to the basketball coach whose team bible is The Art of War by Sun Tzu, Demi is challenged to produce a clean shot from a prone position. He does so, again and again. Instantly, Demi is dubbed the Rain Man for the shots that relentlessly rain down from his miracle hands.
This act awakens the Nigerian deities and incurs the wrath of his father Zeus, putting Demi’s life at risk. His fearless mother Modupe (Rakie Ayola) senses her son is in danger as she knows Zeus all too well. He is the one who ‘trained’ Modupe to hate men after his violation of her led to Demi’s birth. Her survival against the odds leaves a bitter taste in her soul as the Orishas failed to protect her, rendering her “a blot on their conscience”. But her passion is for her son, with his special gift, who “cries riverboats of tears”.
Old rivalries are stirred up between African and Greek Gods. Shango, the God of Thunder, takes on Zeus in a battle. The winner can take a mortal from the loser’s world. This clash of the titans plays out like X-Men v Black Panther. As the victor, Zeus choses Modupe, who cannot seem to escape his tainted clutches.
The more Demi plays basketball, the stronger he grows, and the weaker Zeus becomes. This alarms the African deities as Half Gods are banned from mortal sports as it draws unwanted attention and risks exposing their presence on earth.
After moving swiftly up the basketball league in Nigeria, Demi is poached by an American team, the Golden State Warriors, and becomes a global sensation. Modupe is convinced he will be safe in the US, as he is among more of his own. This miscalculation leads to tragedy, betrayal and a heroic, visceral battle that transforms Nigeria and rebuilds Modupe’s soul.
This epic tale is brought alive by just two amazing performers. Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom’s physicality, charm and conviction bring an array of characters to life. Ayola is a forceful presence as she moves seamlessly between male and female form, but it is her award-worthy Modupe that tears at your heart and shakes up your spirit. She digs into the depth of despair, grapples with grief and lays bare her warrior soul with such emotional clarity and physical dexterity it compels you to face your own vulnerability.
As for Odoom, his Demi is awash with charm, humour, confidence and style. Loveable and awesome yet vengeful, you cannot help but root for and feel protective of him.
Inua Ellams’ words are like honey, all sticky and sensuous containing embers of deep darkness and a lightness of touch: Modupe’s “heart was unmappable”. Through myth he addresses the stark reality of rape being used as a weapon of war, absent fathers, gender inequality and black women’s resilience against the odds.
Then there’s his love of basketball, it’s precision and beauty, and the fact that it is the kingdom of black gods, such as Michael Jordon.
There is so much to relish with this production. The staging is visually impactful with dramatic imagery of nature projected onto an oversized screen. Combined with Tanuja Amarasuriya’s arresting sound effects and emotive lighting by Jackie Shemesh, you are effortlessly transported to Mount Olympus, Greece, to a packed basketball stadium in the US and to the calming water of the River Goddess in Nigeria.
Miss this production at your peril.
The Half God of Rainfall is at Kiln Theatre until 17 May 2019.