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In ART’s ‘The Half-God of Rainfall,’ basketball in the realm of mythology

Mister Fitzgerald (center) and the cast of "The Half-God of Rainfall."Joan Marcus

The first time that director Taibi Magar read Inua Ellams’s “The Half-God of Rainfall,” she was “astonished at the creative act of writing a new mythology [in which] Zeus is the stand-in for the patriarchy and white supremacy and really oppressive ways of thinking.” The epic poem-turned-stage-play mashes up the stories of Greek gods and Yoruba spirits with the basketball-obsessed, half-god son of Zeus who becomes an NBA superstar,

“I had never felt such profound catharsis,” Magar says during a recent Zoom interview. “To me, it does all of the things that Shakespeare is doing. It’s epic mythology. It’s character study. Inua is happily dancing and remixing these mythologies together and then making a new myth. I also love the ways it mirrors Marvel movies like the ‘Spider-Verse’ and ‘Black Panther.’”

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The resulting show, featuring seven actors, thunders into the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge after debuting at New York Theatre Workshop this summer. (The two organizations are co-producing.) In the lyrical drama, Ellams imagines a world in which mothers, daughters, and goddesses rise up against Zeus, the terrible titan of Mount Olympus.

The story centers on the half-god, half-mortal Demi (Mister Fitzgerald), son of Nigerian high priestess Modúpé (Jennifer Mogbock) and Zeus (Michael Laurence), who had raped Modúpé. As a boy growing up in an impoverished Nigerian village, Demi, who can flood the land with his tears, is scorned by the neighborhood kids. But he eventually grows into his powers and becomes a basketball superstar for the Golden State Warriors, a bona fide “rainmaker” on the court thanks to his shooting prowess.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Jennifer Mogbock in "The Half-God of Rainfall."Joan Marcus

Demi’s growing global celebrity eventually brings him into the orbit of Zeus, with an opportunity to avenge the assault on his mother. Later, Zeus is confronted by a group of steadfast women, including Zeus’s wife, Hera (Kelley Curran). The show is narrated by two Yoruba deities — Elegba (Russell G. Jones), a benevolent trickster and messenger between heaven and earth, and Osún (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), the river goddess of love and fertility. They offer critiques on the gendered hierarchy and violence of Greek mythology and the destruction of African traditions and spirituality by colonial oppressors.

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Both the title and the seed for the idea actually came from a line in another of Ellams’s poems, in which he described one of the “weirdos” he used to hang out with at a private school in Nigeria (before his family moved to England). The kid would “play with his saliva in gravity-defying ways,” Ellams recalls in a Zoom interview from the United Kingdom. “It was kind of disgusting, but awesome to watch. He could spit [straight up] and catch his own saliva in his mouth. I’m talking 3, 4, 5 feet in the air. And then he could let his own saliva drip out to almost touch the floor, then suck it back up.”

In the previous poem, he dubbed the kid “The Half-God of Rainfall.” His poetry teacher was struck by the startling image, so he began to actually consider who or what “The Half-God of Rainfall” could be. Ellams grew up playing basketball (at first “to impress a girl,” he says), and he thought about how a great shooter is often dubbed a “rain man” on the court.

To the playwright, basketball is an expansive metaphor, and the game itself has great poetic resonance. “When a team catches fire, there’s an understanding between those five guys on the court — a language, a musicality, a rhythm. For me, there’s just so many parallels [between] the game and poetry itself. There’s so much grace to basketball, so much dance to it.”

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But as he researched Greek mythology, he learned something disturbing that was “glossed over” in school: Zeus is essentially a sexual predator. “I discovered that a lot of his children were conceived from sexual abuse, and I could not unsee that,” he says. “And I had to make a decision — write the nice cutesy story I originally wanted or do the more difficult thing.”

The story shifts its focus to “a single mother and the lengths a parent would go to protect [their] child against an abusive father.”

Inua Ellams says writing "The Half-God of Rainfall" forced him to question "so many things about myself as a man.”MARCUS MIDDLETON

Originally, he had made Demi the central hero. But when he read the play to some female friends, they accused him of fashioning a classic case of comic book “fridging,” a critique that emerged from a 1994 Green Lantern story in which the superhero discovers his girlfriend has been killed by a villain and her body stuffed in a refrigerator. “It became this term for what happens when a male character’s motivation comes from the sacrificial death of a female figure in his life,” Ellams says. “Her death and the emotional repercussions give him some moral impetus to go on this epic journey.

“Some female friends said, ‘You’ve just fridged the mother so that Demi has a journey. That’s so dated. There’s something far more important you can do.”

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Ellams, whose acclaimed play “Barber Shop Chronicles” was seen at the ART in 2018, says he had to dig deep and interrogate his underlying ideas. “If I wanted this metaphoric story to have parallels with the real world, then I needed to get the men out of the way and let the women take care of themselves. And because Demi essentially was an avatar for myself, I had to remove him. I had to get my ego out of the way and focus on the truth of the story. So that was a whole other revolution.

“It took various iterations to finally get to where the play is now. I questioned so many things about myself as a man.”

Ellams originally envisioned the poem to be performed as a one-person play — inspired by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s “An Iliad” (seen at ArtsEmerson in 2013 and 2019). When “Half-God” was staged in London in 2019, it was done with only two actors. For this new version, Magar (“We Live in Cairo,” “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″) says Ellams wanted more performers so that it would be “more legible.”

“If you’re reading the poem in one sitting, you can spend your time rereading verse and understanding the shifts in power,” Ellams explains. “But if you’re writing poetry to be listened to in one chronological live experience, then you need to create space for the text. The easiest way to do that was to have more bodies on stage and to use projection as well, so the images land harder and deeper.”

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THE HALF-GOD OF RAINFALL

Presented by the American Repertory Theater, in a co-production with New York Theatre Workshop. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Through Sept. 24. Tickets from $35. 617-547-8300, AmericanRepertoryTheater.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.