The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.


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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

African-American Literary Movements
Twentieth-century African-American literature has been characterized by two important...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The only musical accompaniment specified in the play is that of a bass. Interestingly, the Bass Player is listed as one of...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

1830: The British government...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

In the play, the character of Ann Vanderguild is from South Africa, and her father is in prison for political activities carried out by her...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Black Drama Anthology (1972), edited by Woodie King and Ron Milner. This anthology is a collection of plays by African-American...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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