It may well be that Inua Ellam’s The Half God of Rainfall will turn out to be the play that forever stopped me from numerically rating plays. What it comes down to is this: as a white, American ( and Jewish? and agnostic?) audience member, this was not a play written for me. In America, and especially on the Broadway circuit, I’m used to nearly every show including me in its intended audience — if not explicitly so, I can almost inevitably find some way to enter into the production. However, at this Kiln Theatre production, I could find no way in: the Nigerian accents were heavy and often indecipherable to my ears, the complex Nigerian-Greek mythology rooted itself in a logic and a worldview vastly disparate from my own, and the staging was far from the systems with which I am familiar. I can speak to whether or not I enjoyed the show — I didn’t — but it’s not really my place to say that this show was a 3 out of 10, as, from the sound of it, there were many, many audience members for whom the show was an utter delight. Who am I to come in to this theatre with my white skin, sit in the back with my British notepad, scribble away with my Jewish pencil, and then pronounce this show a failure?
There are certainly some elements that worked well. For one, the theatre in and of itself works well, as Kiln does lots of work by traditionally suppressed artists (especially black writers and members of the LGBTQ+ community) and attracts younger and more diverse audiences than any theatre which we’ve visited so far. For another, the sound design in this show is the most technically complicated and best executed we’ve encountered; an actor will suddenly reach his left hand into the air, and right at the moment his arm reaches full extension, the sound cue will ring. Whoever was running sound ought to get an award. And furthermore, whoever orchestrated the small, black, circular stage on which they were performing breaking into several pieces and its place being assumed by a riverbank of real water ought to get a hug. It was visually beautiful and thematically relevant, the perfect combination for good set design. Finally, the actress playing Modupe ought to be given a grand trophy — playing Zeus and the women Zeus raped, as well as a mother, a daughter, a basketball coach, and everything in between, she had an enormously hard job and did an enormously good job with it. She shone brightly during this production and rightfully earned the standing ovation with which the audience rewarded her.
There were certainly some elements that did not work well, however. Mainly for me, it all comes down to direction. If you’re going to have a bare stage with two actors who don’t change costumes more than twice (as this show does), you better have some fascinating staging. These actors better move around, and these actors better transform, in such a way as to keep the show lively and to keep the audience members awake. Sadly, this was not the case, and the amount of straight-at-the-audience presentation got tiresome within two scenes. This was compounded by a stunning lack of vocal variety, creating something of a white noise to lull at least this audience member into a doze. On top of this, when I was awake, I could barely understand at least 50% of what was being said as a result of the thick Nigerian accents which the actors assumed (and which the male actor often marred into a semi-British/semi-New York/semi-Nigerian one anyway). My emotional engagement was null as a result of the sheer boredom and confusion which I was experiencing — and this is a show which demands emotional engagement for sudden scenes (such as the woman’s rape by Zeus) to land. These sudden scenes, without any indication of a trigger warning anywhere in the theatre, seem to come out of nowhere, and they are lost in the web of the play’s own weaving more than not. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way, as, at the emotional climax of the play, when Modupe kills her rapist, Zeus, and wails as rain falls on her from above, some audience members were laughing. (I don’t think they even knew she had been raped! I hardly did!) The epilogue to the play has her and the male actor sitting and summarizing the ever-after while laughing, as well, so I guess the audience can’t really be faulted for not comprehending what I thought was the intended tone.
A fellow survivor of sexual assault rated the play a 10 out of 10, and my classmate said at a cocktail bar later that night, “We all really loved the play.” Again, this tells me I should not ruin the party with an arbitrary numerical rating, as clearly it worked for a lot of people. But, in evaluating how well the work accomplished what it seemed intent on doing, as well as the enjoyability of the viewing experience, I cannot say this play scores very high at all.