Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
An immediate popular success, The River Niger won numerous honors, including an Obie Award and a Tony Award. Most critics regard it as Walker’s best work, noting its increased maturity over the playwright’s previous productions. While critic Stanley Kauffman criticized The River Niger as “clumsily built,” he praised its “spirit of affection.”
Like all of Walker’s other plays, though, The Riger Niger was faulted as presenting unrealistic, flat portraits of women. Some critics have charged that Walker’s female characters exist either to serve men or to thwart men’s goals. Walker has also been described as having a “conservative, traditionally male political and social agenda. Stated quite simply, The River Niger valorizes male dominance and female submission.” Another critic cited the play’s “historical limitations,” suggesting that it celebrated the heterosexual African American man at the expense of African American women in a way that is “dated and troubling decades later.”
However, the thought and action of The River Niger are far more complex than this criticism implies. Walker, after all, dedicated the play to both his parents, and his own personal history contributed greatly to its story, making it a candid statement of truth drawn from experience. The play can stand as a positive testimonial for African American men without being an antifeminist screed that has passed out of fashion.