Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
One of eight plays written by Joseph A. Walker, The River Niger is considered by most critics to be his best. Indeed, in the season it was first produced, it won the Obie Award for Best American Play and received the Tony Award for best play. It also earned for its author the Dramatists Guild Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Along with these distinctions, The River Niger holds a central place in Walker’s oeuvre in that it elaborates his favorite themes and treats them in an artistically superior fashion. Most of his other works for the theater, like The Harangues (pr. 1969), Ododo (pr. 1971, pb. 1972), The Lion Is a Soul Brother (pr. 1976), and District Line (pr. 1984), deal with the predicaments and perspectives of African American men but have been criticized for artistic shortcomings and questionable portraits of race. Yet, the quality of the depiction of family ties, friendship, and values in The River Niger raises the play and its themes to a transcendent plane. Black audiences can recognize themselves in it, but the play also provides a portrayal of universal feelings.
The play is, ultimately, a success and an important theatrical achievement in that it documents the struggles of a black family at a turning point in recent history and presaged the arrival of a mature black theater.