The Play

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The play begins on the eve of the homecoming of Jeff Williams, who is returning from military service. The first scene of the play, however, shows the aging patriarch John Williams at work on the poem that provides the title and central symbol of the play. “I am the River Niger—hear my waters,” are the first words uttered by John, whose personal search for a “battlefield” in which he can distinguish himself as an “African warrior” is the underpinning that provides pattern for the play. He finds that battlefield in a heroic gesture that ends the play.

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From the point of departure to the point of arrival in this journey of affirmation, several things happen. It is suspected early in the play, and confirmed by the end, that Mattie Williams, mother to Jeff and wife of John, is seriously ill with cancer. Jeff’s homecoming has him entering a new phase in his life in which he makes the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood. To make that transition, Jeff must confront his father, who experiences his own crisis as he tries to make a success of his failures and to accept his wife’s illness and his son’s independence.

These intimate, internal struggles are paralleled by the social struggle represented by Jeff’s old gang. Formerly, under Jeff’s leadership, the gang was involved in community building, but in his absence it has adopted the tactics of armed revolution, and its members have degenerated into unprincipled behavior and infighting.

Upon his arrival, Jeff is first greeted by Ann, his girlfriend, to whom he later proposes. She is accepted by Mattie and John but is looked upon suspiciously by Grandma, who fears that Ann will hinder Jeff’s progress in life, just as John’s wife and family did to him. John, a highly intelligent man, had to give up college to work three jobs in order to support his wife, child, and some of his wife’s family. His sacrifices result in a lack of satisfaction with his life, with which he copes by drinking. When, at the end of act 2, Jeff discloses that he did not graduate from navigation school and refuses to put on his uniform because he no longer believes in his country, John, a proud man, is overwhelmed and abruptly leaves the house, not to return for six days.

Throughout the play the audience also learns about the activities of the gang now under Mo’s leadership. The perversions and bickering of Chips, Skeeter, and Al are depicted through their interactions with each other and the members of Jeff’s family. However, the most pressing problems for the gang are its confrontations with police and the suspicions of the presence of an informer in the group. Mo seeks Jeff’s help to root out the traitor, something Jeff hesitates to do because he does not want to get his family involved and because he does not believe in the revolutionary jargon and actions of his misguided childhood friends. His plans are to attend law school—something his father began to do in his youth—and change the unequal system from within.

When Jeff refuses to participate in the gang’s efforts, Ann offers to help. She reveals that her father has been imprisoned for nine years after taking responsibility for the revolutionary activity of his sons in South Africa, who were operating a press that printed antigovernment material. Fearing for Ann’s safety, Jeff reconsiders and becomes involved. The police informer, however, provokes a police raid on the Williams house, which leads to the heroism and subsequent death of John Williams.

At the start of act 3, John returns after a six day “bender” with an acceptance of his son’s perspective and his wife’s illness. He also has completed his magnum opus, “The River Niger,” a poem about the grandeur and symbolic importance of the African river, which is presented in life-affirming, masculine terms. He enters into an explosive situation, however, as the informer is about to be exposed and the police surround the house. When the informer is discovered as Al, there is an armed clash and exchange of gunfire between John and Al. John dies, sacrificing himself to save his son and the others from arrest by taking responsibility for the gang’s killing months before of Buckley, an abusive and corrupt narcotics officer, and for the possession of illegal firearms. John dies content that he has found his “battlefield,” and the lance, so to speak, is handed over to Jeff, who is about to confront the police as the play ends.

Dramatic Devices

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The River Niger is a domestic drama presented with a high degree of social realism. Depicting a “brownstone on One Hundred Thirty-third between Lenox and Seventh,” the stage is made up of a cross-section of a house, with a living room and kitchen, as well as stairs going up to the bedrooms, and front and back doors. The characters’ daily lives are presented in intimate detail. The audience sees and hears them dealing with groceries, discussing relationships, drinking, smoking marijuana, expressing sexual desire, and engaging in self-evaluation in the frank yet poetic manner that characterized the work of such contemporaries as Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.

Dialogue and action are used to render the character of African American experience and to provoke thought and discussion on pressing social and political issues of the day. The play raises these issues in terms of how they affect the characters and not simply philosophically or dogmatically. The dramatic confrontations that marked the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s are alluded to in the conflicts that engage the characters. The real-life violence experienced by American society at the time finds an echo in the play’s physical action, overtly presented in the armed confrontation between Al and John and implicitly presented by blaring sirens and cops with bullhorns offstage. This effectively conveys a world beyond the theater.

In terms of pacing, the play stays fairly close to the classic unities of time and place, and the development of the intrigues and their resolution happen in a realistic fashion. Nonetheless, The River Niger has a highly poetic quality that is present not only in the fact that John Williams is a poet and reads his poetry; there are also many moments of poetry from the other characters as they come to poignant realizations stated in a simple yet eloquent fashion. These poetic moments are underscored by the recurrence of a bass line played by an offstage musician that provides an atavistic musical counterpoint to the lyricism of the play’s language.

The Play

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The River Niger opens with Grandma Wilhemina alone in the kitchen, sneaking a drink. Hearing a noise, she hurries out of the kitchen. John Williams, slightly drunk but self-possessed, enters reading aloud from a poem he is working on: “I am the River Niger—hear my waters.” Dissatisfied, John crumples the draft. This vignette sounds the play’s major theme: the conflict between John’s search for personal fulfillment and the genuine, but sometimes distorted, needs of other humans that hinder his quest.

Dr. Dudley Stanton enters. Lifelong friends, John and Dudley demonstrate a deep mutual affection, though it generally manifests in playful racial insults. Dudley also provides a cynical foil to John’s tremendous pride over his son’s impending success in the white man’s world. John, however, reveals his own aspiration to be an “African warrior,” though at present he is “a fighter who ain’t got no battlefield . But I’m gonna find it one day—you watch.”

John and his wife, Mattie, are awaiting the triumphant return of their son, Jeff, who is to graduate from Air Force navigation school. Jeff’s girlfriend, Ann, also arrives at the Williamses’ house to wait for Jeff. Mattie confides to Ann that her husband is a brilliant man, once an aspiring lawyer, who dropped out of college to support her, her mother, and several other relatives. She feels responsible for his lack of fulfillment and his heavy drinking.

Before Jeff appears, Chips, a member of Mo’s gang, comes to the door. With a menacing air, he leaves word for Jeff to meet Mo at “headquarters.” Jeff, before leaving for navigation school, had led the group in constructive community action, but now, with Mo in charge, the gang is mired in dysfunction and violence.

When Jeff arrives, Mo asks for his help in exposing a police informer in his group and avoiding arrest for the earlier killing of a corrupt police officer. At first, Jeff refuses out of concern for his family and disillusionment with black revolutionist ideology. Ann offers to help, however, explaining that her father in South Africa is serving a prison term because he shouldered the blame for her brothers’ antigovernment activity. Jeff then gets involved in Mo’s scheme in order to protect Ann.

Meanwhile, terrible news greets John: His son, as cynical about success on white terms as he is about black revolution, admits that he has dropped out of Air Force navigation school. Mattie, moreover, is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Devastated by both revelations, John disappears from home for six days, returning drunken and disheveled. He reads the poem he has finally finished as a tribute to his wife.

At this point, Mo’s gang returns, and the police—egged on by the double agent—attempt to raid the Williams home. Jeff holds them off, while, inside, Al is revealed as the informer, and he and John exchange gunfire. Al is killed instantly, but John is mortally wounded as well. Before dying, John instructs Jeff to tell the police that he, John, was responsible for murdering the police officer.

John dies believing that he has found his “battlefield.” The play concludes as Jeff, following John’s instructions, prepares to explain his father’s death and the officer’s earlier death to the police. It is Mattie who enforces John’s dying wish, ordering Jeff and the others to adhere strictly to the plan John laid out.

Historical Context

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African-American Literary Movements
Twentieth-century African-American literature has been characterized by two important movements: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, designates a period during the 1920s in which African-American literature flourished among a group of writers concentrated in Harlem, New York City. The Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the Black Aesthetic Movement, which flourished during the 1960s and '70s, embodied values derived from black nationalism, promoting politically and socially significant works, often written in Black English vernacular. Important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

African-American Theater
The development of African-American theater in the first half of the twentieth century was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and included the establishment of theaters devoted to black productions in major cities throughout the United States. In the post-World War II era, black theater became more overtly political and more specifically focused on celebrating African-American culture. One of the most prominent works to emerge from this period was the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. The Black Arts Movement, which emerged in the 1960s, led to the establishment in 1965 of the Black Repertory Theater in Harlem, initiated by Amiri Baraka. Baraka's award-winning 1964 play Dutchman is among the most celebrated dramatic works of this period. Ntozake Shange's 1977 for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf used an experimental dramatic format to address issues facing African-American women. In the 1980s, August Wilson emerged as one of the most important African-American playwrights with his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1985), set in Chicago in the 1920s, about a blues singer and her band.

The Niger River
The title of Walker's play is taken from the poem ‘‘The River Niger,’’ written and read aloud by the character John Williams. The Niger River runs through West Africa and is the third-longest river on the continent (after the Nile and the Congo). Until the abolishment of the British slave trade in 1807, the Niger River Basin was regularly used in the slave trade for transporting captured Africans. (After the slave trade was abolished, slave merchants changed their trade to that of palm oil, which was likewise shipped through the Niger River Basin.)

In John's poem, the River Niger represents the ancestral roots of African Americans in Africa, as well as the river's historical use in the slave trade, as expressed in the lines: ‘‘I came to the cloudy Mississippi / Over keels of incomprehensible woe.’’ Reference to the River Niger in the poem also asserts the continuation of the "spirit" of African heritage; the poem begins, "I am the River Niger— hear my waters!'' and includes the lines, "I sleep in your veins,'' and "I flow to the ends of your spirit.''

The Black Panthers
Although the Black Panthers are never named in Walker's play, the small, local band of revolutionaries led by Mo is clearly meant to refer to the Black Panther Party and other such organizations. Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Black Panther Party was organized in 1966 in Berkeley, California, by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Their primary focus was to arm African Americans and patrol the streets of black neighborhoods to protect the African-American community from police brutality. Their signature "uniform" was a black beret. (In act III of Walker's play, John tells Mo that being a revolutionary ‘‘takes more 'n wearing a goddamn beret.’’ At its height, membership in the party was over 2,000. Although many more African Americans clearly sympathized with the Panthers' politics, others were critical of their violent approach to battling racism. The police in major cities of California, Illinois, and New York were suspected of inciting unnecessarily violent conflicts with members of the Panther Party. By the early 1980s, the Black Panther Party had essentially disbanded.

Marcus Garvey
In act III, John Williams mentions ‘‘the great Marcus Garvey.’’ As Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) was an early organizer in trying to empower African Americans, reference to him is significant to the play's theme of African-American struggles for racial equality. Garvey was born in Jamaica, where he and several friends founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 to advocate the establishment of a black-governed nation in Africa. (Most African countries before World War II were still colonies of European empires.) Although not a successful leader in Jamaica, Garvey became highly influential in the United States after his move to Harlem in 1916. Within several years, Garvey, who was dubbed the "black Moses,'' had a following of some two million African Americans, and had established a newspaper, Negro World. Garvey used the term "new Negro'' to advocate racial pride and a separatist philosophy. In 1920, he organized and led a parade through Harlem with a turnout of 50,000. Garvey, however, was criticized by other African-American leaders, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, for his advocacy of extreme racial separatism.

Literary Style

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Music
The only musical accompaniment specified in the play is that of a bass. Interestingly, the Bass Player is listed as one of the characters, although not actually part of the story or seen on stage. The Bass Player, who ‘‘provides musical poetry for the play,’’ is described as "highly skillful at creating a mood.'' The bass line fades in and out to create a particular mood at key points in the play, often associated with specific characters. Grandma's solo trips into the kitchen to sneak alcohol from her various hiding places are often accompanied by a bass line, sometimes as a backup to her frequent singing of hymns. A bass line also accompanies John when he is reading his poetry aloud, either to himself or others, sometimes specifically with a "jazz theme.'' A bass line often accompanies Ann during key moments of the play. When she first enters the Williams' home, ‘‘a bass line of beautiful melancholy comes in.’’ Here, the musical accompaniment is meant to provide a sense of Ann's inner character and mood. Later, as she tells Mattie the tragic story of her father's nine years' imprisonment in South Africa, the "bass melancholy'' enters again. When Jeff and Ann kiss at the close of act 1, the bass line ‘‘plays under'' to accentuate the romantic mood of the two lovers reunited.

Poetry
Poetry is an important theme in the play, and John's poem ‘‘The River Niger’’ is clearly a key element of the story, as it lends the play its title. In act I, John has only begun the poem, which he reads to himself from a scrap of paper in his pocket. Later, John reads a different, completed poem aloud to Ann and Dudley. In the beginning of act II, John continues to work on "The River Niger,'' which he reads aloud to himself. Finally, in act III, after John returns home from a week-long drinking spree, he reads the completed poem, which he has written to Mattie, aloud to an audience that includes the whole family as well as Dudley and Jeff's friends. The poem, which begins, "I am the River Niger—hear my waters!’’ evokes images of the African roots of African-American people and culture. It suggests that these cultural origins were transported to America with the slave trade, "to the cloudy Mississippi / Over keels of incomprehensible woe'' and continue to flow in African-American culture, ‘‘Transplanted to Harlem / From the Harlem River Drive.’’ The poem ends with a plea for African Americans not to "deny'' their cultural roots: "I am the River Niger! Don't deny me!’’

Setting
The play is set in Harlem, New York City, on ‘‘February 1, the Present: 4:30 p.m.’’ In specifying the exact time and day of the year, but designating the year as "the Present,'' Walker makes the setting specific, yet relevant to the contemporary reader or theater spectator regardless of the year in which the play is actually read or a production attended. The setting is more specifically designated as a "brown-stone on 133rd between Lenox and Seventh.’’ The setting in a specific neighborhood of New York City is important because Harlem has long been associated with the African-American community. Harlem became occupied primarily by African Americans beginning in the early twentieth century, although, by the end of the twentieth century this demographic was no longer accurate. The setting on 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue is further significant in that, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, landlords in the area first began renting primarily to African Americans along Lenox Avenue, and, by World War I, "the chief artery of black Harlem is 125th Street, popularly called the 'main stem."' In other words, Walker has set the Williams family brownstone in a neighborhood that has long been in the heart of black Harlem. This setting is significant to Walker's thematic focus on African-American identity as rooted in African-American history.

Compare and Contrast

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1825: Explorer Hugh Clapperton attempts to determine the course of the Niger River.

1830: The British government commissions Richard and John Lander, English explorers of West Africa, to complete Clapperton's exploration of the river. The brother's explorations determined the Niger River flowed into the Atlantic Ocean, dispelling the previous belief that the Niger was a tributary of the Nile River.

2000: The river Niger provides irrigation for agriculture and serves as a major means of transportation to the cities and villages it transgresses. Many visitors can travel the Niger River on large river boats, which takes them down the river and over half the country in one week's time. Tourists can also take more leisurely tours on the river by using a traditional pirogue (small canoe) or a pinasse (motor boat).

1950s: Malcolm X becomes the primary spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The Nation's message, preaching self-help and personal responsibility, is particularly popular in Harlem, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Malcolm's anti-white man speeches and calls for a separate country for blacks inspires Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to form The Black Panthers.

1960s: Malcolm X breaks with the Nation of Islam, denouncing Elijah Muhammad as a fake. He no longer preaches a message of hatred and separatism. Malcolm X establishes Muslim Mosque, Inc., Elijah Muhammad appoints Minister Louis Farrakhan to Temple No. 7 in New York City. In 1964, Malcolm X is assassinated while delivering a speech to his followers. 1970s-2000: Under the spiritual leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan, The Nation of Islam gains new respect and more members, extending to mosques and study groups in over eighty cities in America. Farrakhan is active in lecturing throughout many countries, drawing crowds of 60,000, preaching the Nation's messages and promoting the issues of freedom, equality, and unity.

1920: During the 1920s, many popular and critically successful African-American artists live in Harlem and produce important works during their time there. Some of the artists living in Harlem at this time include Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. This time period becomes known as the Harlem Renaissance.

1970s: Although Harlem retains a predominantly African-American population and many artists continue to settle in this village of New York, it has lost much of its former glory. Harlem gains a reputation for being an area high in crime and poverty.

2000: Much has been done to improve Harlem's reputation, and tourists to New York are encouraged to visit Harlem and see many of its historic sites and attractions, including Riverbank State Park, the Apollo Theater, Sugar Hill, which is the area where Count Basie and Sugar Ray Robinson lived, and the Schomberg Center, which was the home of the Harlem literary renaissance.

Media Adaptations

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The River Niger was adapted by Walker as a film with the same title. It was produced by Cine Arts in 1976 and starred Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cooper, Grace, ‘‘Joseph A. Walker,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38, Gale, 1985.

"Joseph A. Walker,'' in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 1999.

Kauffmann, Stanley, ‘‘Theater: The River Niger,’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 12, September 29, 1973, pp. 22, 33.

Further Reading
Branch, William B., ed., Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama, Mentor Books. This collection of plays by contemporary African-American writers includes Amiri Baraka and August Wilson.

Sewell, Tony, Garvey's Children: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Africa World Press, 1990. Sewell's text provides an historical survey of the influence of Marcus Garvey on civil rights leaders.

Shange, Ntozake, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem, Macmil-lan, 1997. Shange's experimental play focuses on the struggles of African-American women against racism and sexism.

Wilson, August, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985. Black Bottom is a critically acclaimed play by the leading African-American dramatist of the 1980s. Wilson's play concerns a female blues singer and the members of her band.

X, Malcolm, as told to Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Random House, 1975. This famous biography of the black nationalist leader Malcolm X provides a compelling description of Malcom X's life and the varied paths it took.

Bibliography

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Andrews, Laura. “Harlem Classic Revived at NBT.” Review of The River Niger, by Joseph A. Walker. New York Amsterdam News 92, no. 19 (May 10, 2001). This highly favorable review of the revived The River Niger is unusual in its avoidance of judgment on ideological grounds.

Barthelemy, Anthony. “Mother, Sister, Wife: A Dramatic Perspective.” Southern Review 21, no. 3 (Summer, 1985): 770. Contends that in defending “highly underrated black daddies,” The River Niger is a rebuttal to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which in turn is a “feminist revision” of Theodore Ward’s Marxist play Big White Fog (1938), which was perceived as antifeminist. Barthelemy concludes that The River Niger is not misogynistic but represents Walker’s celebration of both men and women.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of The River Niger, by Joseph A. Walker. The New Republic 169, no. 12 (September 29, 1973): 22. Views the play as a “clumsily built” piece of dramatic craftsmanship, but concedes that Walker is at his best when evoking the love and friendship among the characters. Notes that African American audiences responded warmly to this evocation and felt validated by it.

Lee, Dorothy. “Three Black Plays: Alienation and Paths to Recovery.” Modern Drama 19, no. 4 (December, 1975): 397. Examines the ways in which the main characters struggle with and overcome a sense of alienation. The poem John completes before dying, “The River Niger,” affirms life, and that affirmation unifies the dramatic action. It symbolizes the characters’ African heritage and, beyond it, the life force and energy of life. The poem’s ending calls for communal effort and self-acceptance.

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