Dancing on Ancient Ground: In Conversation with Director Taibi Magar

SEP 6, 2023

Patrice Johnson Chevannes stands with arms outstretched as her blue dress billows across the stage.

Before rocketing past Olympus to the edges of the cosmos, the cast of The Half-God of Rainfall introduce themselves. Dressed in black, feet bare, they greet the audience: “Hi, my name is Jennifer Mogbock, and I play Modúpé.” “I’m Michael Laurence, and I play Zeus.” And so on.

While framing the characters’ origins in Yoruba spirituality and Greek myth, this unscripted moment also establishes the actors first and foremost as a team of storytellers—not so much inhabiting imagined worlds as conjuring them, through poetry, gesture, and a little help from audiences’ collective creativity. It’s a signature combination for director Taibi Magar, returning to Cambridge for her fourth A.R.T. production in five years.

“I try not to dress it up,” says Magar—who, in 2022, was named Co-Artistic Director of Philadelphia Theatre Company alongside Tyler Dobrowsky. “For me, the simple act of storytealling is really interesting. It’s an ancient relationship: for thousands of years, we’ve been sitting around the fire telling each other stories. I’m always trying to capture that live, imaginative place between performer and audience.”

In Magar’s work, the space between teller and listener can serve as a gateway to expansive theatrical worlds. We Live in Cairo (at A.R.T. in 2019) went to the heart of Tahrir Square for the events and aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Macbeth In Stride (2021, co-directed with Tyler Dobrowsky) fused pop, rock, gospel, and R&B to trace the fatal arc of Shakespeare’s Lady M while uplifting contemporary Black female power. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (2022) offered a polyphonic portrait of LA during the uprisings against police violence that shook the city 30 years ago.

Each told by an ensemble, these stories all center questions of justice—a theme that Magar connects directly to the foundations of storytelling. “Imagination is the key to social justice,” she says, referencing the influence of international conflict mediator John Paul Lederach, whom she read as a graduate student of Erik Ehn at the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA Program in Directing. “If you can’t imagine something, you can’t fight for it. And I think the theater teaches and embraces and values that kind of imagination as a skill.”

Imagination—and themes of justice—lie at the heart of The Half-God of Rainfall. A new play by Inua Ellams (Barber Shop Chronicles), the piece imagines an earth-shaking collision between Yoruba deities and the gods of Mount Olympus, played out, in part, on world-class basketball courts. As they invoke the vast worlds and myriad voices of Ellams’ poem, the actors shapeshift across a bank of black gravel designed by Riccardo Hernández. (The production also comes to life through costume design by Linda Cho, lighting design by Stacy Derosier, sound design and music composition by Mikaal Sulaiman, and projection design by Tal Yarden, with movement direction by Orlando Pabotoy.)

Taibi Magar leans against a wall in front of costume designs.

The scope of The Half-God of Rainfall may be wider than that of the average domestic drama, but in the play’s poetic language and its mixture of mythic characters with modern mortals, Magar recognizes an essential theatricality. “That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing,” she says. “We’re definitely dancing on that same ground. It’s ancient and new at the same time.”

This keen eye for the intersections of modern voices and timeless forms has made Magar a sought-after partner for playwrights developing new work. “As soon as I met Taibi,” writes Inua Ellams in his program note for Half-God, “I knew I’d found a collaborator who could see the minimum and maximum possibilities of the poem.” In addition to her productions at A.R.T., Magar’s recent new-play work includes Claudia Rankine’s Help (The Shed), Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge (Atlantic Theater Company), and Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is (Soho Rep).

As Co-Artistic Director of Philadelphia Theater Company, Magar is more focused on new work than ever. “Tyler and I share the profound values of regional theaters reflecting the city that they’re in, so we’re focused on celebrating the artists and artistry of Philadelphia,” she said. She will also return to Cambridge this fall for a workshop of Night Side Songs. A music-theater piece written by Daniel and Patrick Lazour (We Live in Cairo) and commissioned by A.R.T., the work explores the relationship between patients and palliative caregivers during what Susan Sontag called “the night side of life.” The workshop will conclude with in-process showings in both Cambridge and New York.

Whether in songs about sickness, communal recollections of crisis, or the cosmic staging of a modern myth, Magar hopes that these ancient forms of collective imagination might illuminate a path through present troubles. “It’s all about making great art,” she says, “as the voice to carry us through these difficult times.”

Interview by A.R.T. Editor & Associate Dramaturg Robert Duffley

Patrice Johnson Chevannes in The Half-God of Rainfall at New York Theatre Workshop. Joan Marcus.
Director Taibi Magar in rehearsal for The Half-God of Rainfall. Marcus Middleton.

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