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...
(The entire section is 772 words.)