Walker, Joseph A. 1935-2003

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WALKER, Joseph A. 1935-2003

PERSONAL: Born February 23, 1935, in Washington, DC; died of complications from diabetes, January 25, 2003, in the Washington Hospital Center, Washington, DC; son of Joseph (a house painter) and Florine Walker; married Barbara Brown (divorced, 1965); married Dorothy A. Dinroe, 1970 (died, 1996); children: (first marriage) Michael, Steven; (second marriage) Kumina, Nandi, Jodoa. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1956; Catholic University of America, M.F.A., 1970; New York University, Ph.D.

CAREER: Educator, actor, director, playwright, choreographer, producer. Worked as taxi driver, shoe and cosmetics salesman, and postal clerk; English teacher at junior high and high schools in Washington, DC, and New York, NY. Actor, set designer, and playwright, in New York, NY, beginning 1967; Negro Ensemble Company, New York, NY, playwright, director, and choreographer, beginning 1969; Yale University, New Haven, CT, playwright-in-residence, 1970-71; City College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, instructor; Howard University, Washington, DC, instructor of advanced acting and playwrighting, 1989-92, chair of theater department, 1993—; Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, theatre professor and director of African-American Studies. Actor in stage productions, including The Believers, 1967, Cities of Beziques, 1969, Once in a Lifetime, A Raisin in the Sun, and Purlie Victorious; in motion pictures, including April Fools, 1969, and Bananas, 1971; and in television program N.Y.P.D. (ABC-TV). Narrator of In Black America, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Cofounder and artistic director of The Demi-Gods (dance-music theatre repertory company). Military service: U.S. Air Force; became second lieutenant.

AWARDS, HONORS: Obie Award, 1971, Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, 1973, Elizabeth Hull-Kate Award from Dramatist Guild, First Annual Audelco Award, John Gassner Award from Outer Circle, Drama Desk Award, Black Rose, all for The River Niger; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1979; Living Legend Award, 1995 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC.



(With Josephine Jackson) The Believers (first produced Off-Broadway at the Garrick Theatre, May 9, 1968), published in The Best Plays of 1967-1968, edited by Otis L. Guernsey, Dodd (New York, NY), 1968.

The Harangues (two one-act plays and two episodes; first produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark's Playhouse, December 30, 1969), Tribal Harangue Two published in The Best Short Plays 1971, edited by Stanley Richards, Chilton (Philadelphia, PA), 1971.

Ododo (title means "The Truth"; first produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark's Playhouse, November 24, 1970), published in Black Drama Anthology, edited by Woodie King and Ron Milner, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Yin Yang, first produced Off-Off-Broadway at the Afro-American Studio, June 30, 1972, produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark's Playhouse, May 30, 1973.

The River Niger (three-act; first produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark's Playhouse, December 5, 1972; also see below), Hill & Wang, 1973.

Antigone Africanus, first produced in New York, 1975.

The Lion Is a Soul Brother, first produced in New York, 1976.

District Line, first produced Off-Broadway at Theatre Four, December, 1984.

The Absolution of Willie Mae, first produced at the Kaufman Theatre, New York, November 13, 1999.

Also author of Themes of the Black Struggle and The Hiss.


The River Niger (screenplay; based on play of the same title), Cine Artists, 1976.

Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times.

ADAPTATIONS: The River Niger was made into a film starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

SIDELIGHTS: The turn of fate that led to Joseph A. Walker's writing career occurred in the U.S. Air Force, where he began writing poetry. There, taunts by a white airman led to his decision to pursue writing, rather than a military career. After receiving an M.F.A. degree he began teaching and entered the world of the theater as an actor. Walker soon applied his writing skills to the theater and began writing plays.

His first play, The Believers, written with Josephine Jackson, appeared in 1968. New York Times reviewer Dan Sullivan commented "for all its sloppy organization, The Believers has something to say about being a Negro in the United States that its predecessors … did not say." The Believers was reprinted in The Best Plays of 1967-1968.

Walker's next work, The Harangues, as its title suggests, is used as a vehicle for the playwright to vent his opinions. Composed of two episodes and two one-act plays, the work portrays a despairing view of black life. In the first episode, a fifteenth-century West African man chooses to kill his son rather than subject him to life as a slave in the New World. The second episode contrasts the first by showing a near-future black American revolutionary who, after a failed black uprising, insists that his son live, as in him lies the future. These illustrate the difference between being born into sure slavery and being born with the possibility of freedom.

The first one-act, set in Washington, DC, concerns a black male and his pregnant white fiancée. The white woman agrees to assist her lover in the murder of her father who will disinherit her if she marries. However, the plan backfires and results in the death of the scheming black man due to the actions of a traitorous black "friend." In the second one-act, unless they can convince him of their worthiness to live, a deranged black man threatens to kill his three captives: a white liberal and an assimilationist black man and his white lover. After exposing their perverted lives, only the white woman who endures several sexual indignities is deemed to be virtuous. However, as the death penalty is being carried out, the woman takes a bullet meant for her contemptible black lover. In an ensuing struggle, the assimilationist gains control of his captor's gun and kills him. As in the first one-act, a desperate black man dies at the hands of a black minion of the white race.

Reviewer Walter Kerr in the New York Times says of The Harangues, "In Joseph A. Walker, the company has come upon a playwright whose theatrical instincts are strong, even when he is allowing them to gallop along a little bit ahead of him; that is better than playing it shy, or tentative, or safe." The critic continued, "Each play creates its own little pocket of resistance. But these aren't failures of talent, they're simply lapses of craft in otherwise provocative plays."

In sharp contrast to the pessimistic outlook which envelopes The Harangues, The River Niger celebrates the enduring qualities of the black man and offers a hopeful vision of the future. Johnny Williams, a middle-aged house painter and poet living in Harlem, uses liquor to escape the bleak reality of a life stagnated by unrealized dreams. Johnny places his hopes for the future in his son Jeff's career in the air force. But his son's homecoming brings another disappointment to Johnny's life. Jeff admits that he was dismissed from the military which he abhorred. He contends his ouster was due to his refusal to be a "supernigger"—a black man who tries to prove he has capabilities comparable to whites. He further announces he will no longer be bound by familial and societal expectations but will instead seek only to fulfill his own needs and desires. Despite his intentions, Jeff soon finds himself involved in the self-destructive affairs of his former gang. When prison terms appear imminent for Jeff and the gang after they are betrayed by one of their members, Johnny has a shoot-out with the traitor which results in both of their deaths. But before Johnny dies, he demands to take the rap for the shooting and the gang's alleged offense. Johnny's wife Mattie admonishes her family and the gang not to fail to cooperate and carry out her husband's wishes. Johnny's heroic gesture provides Jeff and other gang members with a new lease on life and a powerful example of the unconditional selfless love that a father can have for his son. The characters function as representatives of differing moral values, abilities, aspirations, and perspectives within the black community. Johnny emerges as the most eloquent and convincing spokesman who, through his poem "The River Niger," speaks of the need to be cognizant of one's unbreakable link to all people of African descent.

Although some reviewers complained about the dialogue being artificial, wooden, and coarse, and the plot contrived and melodramatic, most reviewers considered The River Niger an important contribution to contemporary drama.

A Washington, DC, taxi-stand serves as the setting for District Line. The play depicts a day in the lives of six cab drivers: two white and three black males and one black female. The drivers reveal their past experiences, present concerns, and aspirations as they interact with each other and their passengers. Black males continue to be Walker's most poignant characterizations. Of greatest interest are the scenes concerning two drivers—Doc, a moonlighting Howard University professor and Zilikazi, an exiled South African revolutionary.

Walker is known for his interest in teaching about the theater as well, educating students at several universities, including Howard and Rutgers. After nearly four decades in American theater as an instructor, actor, director, and playwright, Walker died of complications from diabetes on January 25, 2003.



Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997, p. 751.


Back Stage, December 31, 1999, Karl Levett, review of The Absolution of Willie Mae, p. 34.

Black World, April, 1971.

Booklist, January 15, 1974, review of The River Niger, p. 514.

Choice, March, 1974, review of The River Niger, p. 95.

Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 1970.

Cue, December 5, 1970.

Interpretations: Studies in Language and Literature, number 6, 1974, Elizabeth C. Phillips, "'South … Grown Deep': The River Trope in a Recent American Drama," pp. 64-69.

MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, spring, 1980, Chester J. Fontenot, "Mythic Patterns in River Niger and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men," pp. 41-49.

Modern Drama, December, 1976, Dorothy Lee, "Three Black Plays: Alienation and Paths to Recovery," pp. 397-404.

Nation, February 2, 1970, Harold Clurman, review of The Harangues, pp. 124-125; December 25, 1972, Harold Clurman, review of The River Niger, pp. 668-669.

New Republic, September 29, 1973, Stanley Kauffmann, review of The River Niger, pp. 22, 33.

New York, December 14, 1970.

New Yorker, January 24, 1970; December 16, 1972.

New York Times, May 10, 1968, Dan Sullivan, "Theater: 'The Believers'"; January 14, 1970, Clive Barnes, "Theater: Some White-Black Vignettes"; January 25, 1970, Walter Kerr, "Provocative and Promising," section 2, pp. 1, 3; November 25, 1970, Clive Barnes, "Theater: 'Ododo,' a Militant Musical," p. 26; December 6, 1970, Clive Barnes, "Broadway's Obit Slightly Exaggerated"; December 14, 1970; December 6, 1972, Mel Gussow, "'River Niger' Is Rife with Solid Insights"; December 17, 1972, Walter Kerr, "Many Virtues, and Yet…: Kerr on 'The River Niger'," p. D5; March 28, 1973, Clive Barnes, "Stage: Walker's Strong 'River Niger'"; May 31, 1973, Mel Gussow, "Stage: 'Yin Yang' Opens"; December 5, 1984, Frank Rich, "Stage: 'District Line,' From Negro Ensemble," p. 26; November 26, 1999, Anita Gates, "She's a Can't-Help-It Kind of Person," p. B3.

Saturday Review, February 14, 1970, Henry Hewes, review of The Harangues, p. 30.

Show Business, November 28, 1970.

Time, January 1, 1973.

Variety, December 9, 1970.

Village Voice, January 22, 1970, Martin Washburn, "In the Line of Wounded Madmen: 'The Harangues'," p. 45, 56.

Washington Post, April 13, 1973.

Wilson Library Bulletin, December 1974, review of The River Niger, p. 305.



Washington Times, February 10, 2003, p. B3.


Playbill, www.playbill.com/ (January 31, 2003).*