CAMBRIDGE — The talent level of players in today’s NBA borders on the mythic, with games abounding in rub-your-eyes, did-he-really-just-do-that? moments.
So there’s a certain logic to the decision by playwright Inua Ellams to situate “The Half-God of Rainfall” within the realm of mythology as he tells the tale of Demi, a half-Nigerian mortal, half-Greek god who achieves superstardom and celebrity on the strength of his prodigious hoop skills.
But the true subject of “The Half-God of Rainfall” is the history — and the present-day reality — of sexual violence against women.
The tonally diverse pieces don’t always fit together in Ellams’s drama, now at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. Ellams has a tendency — also evident in his “Barber Shop Chronicles,” presented at the ART in 2018 — to let the poetic flow of his words surge into a flood, diffusing the work’s focus.
But he’s an imaginative and original writer, and at its best “The Half-God of Rainfall” delivers an intoxicating marriage of language, movement, and design. Helmed by Taibi Magar, there’s nary a weak performance in the production at the Loeb Drama Center.
Magar’s sensitive and sure-handed direction justifies the ART’s faith in her ability to handle ambitious and conceptually challenging work. In recent years she has helmed ART productions of “We Live in Cairo,” “Macbeth in Stride,” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”
In “The Half-God of Rainfall,” Demi (Mister Fitzgerald, excellent), is conceived in violence, when Zeus (Michael Laurence), a figure of boundless cruelty, rapes Modúpé, played by Jennifer Mogbock.
Magar stages the assault in a manner that is not graphic but still lands with the visceral power of a gut punch. (Later there’s a scene of violence that is likewise not graphic but is sudden and jolting enough that it drew gasps from the audience Tuesday night.)
Modúpé remains haunted by the attack on her by Zeus. “What exact regime teaches males to take what isn’t given?” she asks. It’s a question that reverberates throughout the play, with Mogbock vividly conveying Modúpé's anguish, fury, and, eventually, resolve.
Her son Demi, meanwhile, is launched into basketball stardom, with the play making stops at Game 6 of the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Demi is also propelled into the heart of celebrity culture, dryly summed up by Hera (Kelley Curran), the Greek goddess who is both wife and sister of Zeus: “Newscasters, journalists, sports companies hell-bent on monetizing the myth of him.” In a deft touch, Demi encounters Hakeem Olajuwon, a real-life Nigerian-American NBA legend, now retired.
The design team brought its “A” game to the task of staging this intricate work. All of the elements mesh to evocative effect, from Riccardo Hernández’s set to Linda Cho’s costumes to Stacey Derosier’s lighting to Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound. Tal Yarden’s world-conjuring projections are particularly outstanding. Also deserving of kudos is the movement direction by Orlando Pabotoy and Beatrice Capote.
The play’s cast of characters, who also serve as narrators and commentators, are drawn from the pantheon of Greek mythology and the deities of Yoruba spirituality. They include Jason Bowen as the warrior Sàngó, Patrice Johnson Chevannes as the nurturing Osún, and Russell G. Jones as Elegba, a trickster god of the Yoruba tradition.
With its battles and rivalries, “The Half-God of Rainfall” reminds us — as do the daily headlines from Ukraine — that it is often women who suffer the most when war erupts.
As events unfold, the play also delivers a message: If you’re going to smash the patriarchy, it’s best to start at the very top.
THE HALF-GOD OF RAINFALL
Play by Inua Ellams. Directed by Taibi Magar. Coproduction by American Repertory Theater and New York Theatre Workshop. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Sept. 24. Tickets start at $35, with a limited number of $5 tickets available. 617-547-8300, AmericanRepertoryTheater.org