The River Niger, a loosely autobiographical play by Joseph A. Walker, was first performed by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City in 1972. The play was first published in 1973, and was adapted to the screen by Walker in the 1976 production starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
The River Niger is about Jeff Williams, a young African-American man returning home to his family in Harlem after several years in the Air Force. His mother, Mattie; father, John; and grandmother eagerly await his arrival. Ann Vanderguild, a nurse from South Africa who met Jeff at a hospital in Canada, unexpectedly arrives at the Williams' house with her suitcases, intending to convince Jeff to marry her. When Jeff finally arrives, he is greeted by his childhood friend Mo and Mo's men, a small group of revolutionaries who try to bully Jeff into joining their organization. But Jeff does not agree with their politics and is set on becoming a lawyer. Jeff, however, severely disappoints his father when he informs the family that he has flunked out of the Air Force and never liked it in the first place. Jeff's father, John, is so enraged by this that he leaves home and doesn't return until a week later, having gone on a drinking "bender." After Jeff reluctantly agrees to help Mo and his organization, they all find themselves in the Williams' house, surrounded by police who have discovered a violent plot planned by the young revolutionaries. Jeff's father sacrifices his life to save Jeff from being implicated in the crime.
The River Niger focuses on themes common to much of Walker's work: the struggles of black men in a racist society; the camaraderie between black men; the role of men in the black family; and efforts among African Americans to achieve greater equality.
Act I Summary
In act I of The River Niger, John and Mattie Williams prepare for the return home of their son Jeff, who has spent several years in the Air Force. As the play opens, Jeff's grandmother Wilhemina Brown, Mattie's mother, sneaks a drink from her hiding place in the kitchen. John and his friend Dr. Dudley Stanton share a drink and banter; their banter includes both crude insults and obvious expressions of loving camaraderie. Ann Vanderguild arrives at the Williams' house. She is a nurse in her twenties, from South Africa, who cared for Jeff in a hospital in Canada and has arrived without invitation or warning, hoping to get Jeff to marry her. Everyone perceives this right away, but the men are impressed by her physical attractiveness, and John reads aloud a poem he has written. When Jeff's mother and grandmother return home from shopping, Mattie is quickly won over by Ann's sincerity and charm, but Grandma immediately and openly disapproves of her.
John and Dudley leave for the Apple, the local bar. Ann explains to Mattie that her father has been in prison in South Africa for the past nine years because her two brothers had been carrying out anti-government activities; her father took the blame so that her brothers could flee the country.
Ann and Mattie begin preparing dinner. Chips, a childhood friend of Jeff's, shows up at the door looking for Jeff. Chips is sexually aggressive toward Ann. That night, as Ann is sleeping in the living room, Mo and his friends—Chips, Skeeter, Al, and Mo's girlfriend Gail—members of a local revolutionary group, barge in looking for Jeff. They attempt to intimidate Ann, until John and Dudley arrive home from the bar, drunk, and John threatens them with a gun. After they leave, John and Dudley share another drink in the kitchen, while Jeff sneaks in and awakens Ann, who is sleeping in the living room. The two have sex, then Jeff sneaks up to his bedroom.
Act II Summary
In act II, the next morning, John pauses in the middle of mopping the kitchen floor to write a poem which begins, ‘‘I am the River Niger.’’ Dudley arrives, and the two men leave for the local bar. Mattie explains to Ann that John wanted to become a lawyer, but had to quit school to support various...
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