Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301
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.