Walker, Joseph A. 1935–
Walker, a black American dramatist, is best known for The River Niger, which was awarded a 1973 Obie. The play depicts the violence of black ghetto life and insightfully comments on familial relationships. Although critics praise the exuberance of his work, they also find that abundance of theme and detail tend to blur his focus. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)
Joseph Walker's The Harangues … is another example of impassioned black theatre which is interesting only because it is impassioned…. The first of the evening's harangues (there are two, which are emblematically pictorial and hymnal) is a short melodrama in which a young Negro plots the murder of his prospective white (Texan) millionaire father-in-law and is himself mowed down by the man (actually a Harlem Italian) and several of his black henchmen.
In the second harangue, Asura, a black street "prophet," threatens to kill two "unworthy" blacks and two whites (one of the latter pair, a girl, is eventually spared because Asura comes to find that she has human "value"). Asura too is killed by one of the blacks. The play is somewhat baffling until the final point is made. Walker writes with an articulate vigor…. The author is not a "racist"; he condemns humankind as a whole for its stupidity, cruelty, insane betrayal of good faith. The last sentence of the play, in which the dying Asura spits out his contempt in a telling obscenity, struck me as universally justified when we reach the mood of despairing disgust over our perpetually foul savagery. (pp. 124-25)
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The Harangues'," in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 210, No. 4, February 2, 1970, pp. 124-25.
At the end of [The Harangues], we are left with the marvelously bitter image of Asura cursing the world with fierce profanity. Within the short span of the taut action, none of the characters have much opportunity to reveal themselves more than nominally, but maybe that is why Mr. Walker calls his creation a harangue. Whatever its faults, it does succeed in expressing the playwright's passionate distaste for the hypocrisy and corruption that infect both blacks and whites.
Henry Hewes, "Black Hopes," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 7, February 14, 1970, p. 30.∗
Joseph A. Walker's Ododo (truth) is an unstructured, loosely hung kind of review, if anything. It is self-contradicting in both form and content. The first four of fourteen scenes are highly stylized symbolic conceptions of an African birth-of-man fable, and of the initial entrapment of Africans by predatory human animals….
Walker has trouble with his assessment of the Black man. To begin with, he uses symbolism which he seems unable to control. In one of the early stages of African life, the Creator … delivers a large bag and a small one to Black mankind, which, quite predictably, chooses the large one filled with garments, the symbols of materialism. The other bag contains immortality. [The Creator] then chastizes Black mankind for having opted for "things rather than essences." Here Walker makes the Black man indistinguishable from the white one. Later, however, in a skit with anthropological overtones, "Black Magnificence," he insists that the Black man is superior in all ways. The ultimate truth to be perceived from the major symbolism simply never is, and it thus fails to say anything of importance. It is functional though: The large bag contains the rest of the costumes.
If one were to single out the greatest fault of the [play], it would have to be that it is apparently never clear to Joseph Walker precisely which historical truths about Black-white relationships he wants his "play" to tell, so he tries to make it tell them all. The result of this is distortion and contradiction. He castigates whites for pursuing science and building cathedrals and praises Blacks for developing soul while such things were going on. In view of the fact that Western Europeans once went to the great scholars and universities of Africa to learn about these things, the "play" at this point seems a bit more anti than pro Africa. (p. 47)
The sense of Black pride which should grow out of Walker's use of his materials—and thus involve the viewer, does not; rather, it is heavily imposed upon them and the viewer remains nearly static, denied the kind of emotional involvement which should be his as he perceives the meaning in—and has feelings about—the playwright's illuminations. (p. 48)
Helen Armstead Johnson, "'Ododo'" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright, 1971 by the Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), in Black World, Vol. XX, No. 6, April, 1971, pp. 47-8.
["The River Niger"] is so generous—so rich in character, detail, incident, emotion, and humor—that it more than fulfills the promise of Mr. Walker's not so successful "The Harangues" of a few years ago. "The River Niger" is about a family in Harlem and the crises that beset it during the single week of the action…. The title makes an apt image for the whole drama—the black river flowing through Africa, the black wave of humanity flowing through America, the strong tide of love and affection flowing through the family scraps and pretenses and jokes. And there is an undercurrent flowing, too—of pain and frustration. Johnny describes himself as a fighter without a battlefield—even the black revolution seems to have lost all purpose for him—but by the time the action is over he has finished the poem and found his battlefield, something worth dying for. Much of the play is very funny, and the ending is hopeful. Only once does Mr. Walker lapse into the weakness for the set speech that spoiled his "Harangues."… (pp. 86-7)
Edith Oliver, "Black River," in The New Yorker (© 1972 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 43, December 16, 1972, pp. 86-7.∗
If any single criticism were to be leveled against Joseph Walker's The River Niger … it might be that it contains too much. But that is a good fault—one that in this case is both an aspect of the play's exuberance and integral to its purpose. The River Niger depicts the morass of Harlem; it heaps together vitality, corruption, agony, aspiration, violence and a will to transcendence. No salient trait predominates, except ferment, a ferment of existence struggling confusedly and valiantly to transfigure itself into coherence. The play's statement is humorous, lyric, virile, crude, and oddly inspiring….
[The] play is somewhat untidy in construction and spills over into melodrama. These are blemishes, but they do not impair the pulse of truth and human energy that keep the play constantly engaging. Through its rough naturalism there runs a vein of authentic poetry of feeling and speech. The play has something naively "romantic" about it and, though overwritten, is theatrically enlivening and emotionally stirring….
Johnny (and the author) feel themselves rooted in an age-old soil of African cosmology, a monistic sense of the unity of man and nature, flesh and spirit, humanity as a single tribe…. Whether Johnny's poem is good or not is less to the point than that its essential meaning informs the play and gives it a dimension beyond the local color of its realism.
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The River Niger'," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 215, No. 21, December 25, 1972, p. 668.
I haven't in a long time seen a realistic play so clumsily built, so naively motivated, so arbitrarily whipped to climaxes, and so ridiculously concluded [as The River Niger]. Walker is intent on cramming into his script everything he knows and feels about contemporary black life: family troubles, attitudes toward white people and toward military service, young love, job frustrations, militancy, police oppression, drugs, homosexuality, even black snobbisms about color. (Grandma resents being called black, says she's half Cherokee.) The way that Walker carpenters and shoves to get all this (and more) on stage when he wants it there makes the clumsiest 19th-century opera libretto look like Chekhov.
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The River Niger, significantly, and with symbolic force, is built upon a domestic event, a homecoming. Jeff Williams, son of John and Mattie, returns from the air force to waiting family, peer group, and girlfriend. In so doing, he precipitates an external crisis in which all participate and which exposes the internal spiritual disarray most of them share. John is the pivotal force in the group. He has an acute sense of the ineffectiveness of his existence. In his youth he was a bright potential law student who had to drop out of school to support not only his immediate family but all the succeeding waves of impoverished relatives he has helped to emigrate from the South. He would like, vicariously, to gain...
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