The Believers, pr. 1968 (with Josephine Jackson)
The Harangues, pr. 1969, revised pb. 1971 (as Tribal Harangue Two)
Ododo, pr. 1970
Yin Yang, pr. 1972
The River Niger, pr. 1972
Antigone Africanus, pr. 1975
The Lion Is a Soul Brother, pr. 1976
District Line, pr. 1984
The River Niger, 1976 (adaptation of his play)
“Broadway Vitality,” 1973
“The Hiss,” 1980
“Themes of the Black Struggle,” 1982
Joseph A. Walker was born to working-class parents, Joseph and Florine Walker. He earned a B.A. from Howard University in philosophy in 1956 and minored in drama. Walker spent much of his time in college working on productions with the university’s Howard Players. In 1955 he played the character Luke in James Baldwin’s premier production of The Amen Corner at Howard University. After graduating, he served in the U.S. Air Force, becoming a first lieutenant before his honorable discharge in 1960. He earned his M.F.A. in drama from Catholic University in 1963 and was later awarded the Ph.D. from New York University. He divorced Barbara Brown in 1965, and in 1970 he married Dorothy Dinroe.
Walker’s teaching career began in junior high and high schools in Washington, D.C., and he subsequently taught at the City College of New York and at Howard University. He later became a professor in the theater division of the Fine Arts Department at Rutgers University. In his early years, he performed with the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), which produced several of his plays, and from 1970 to 1971 he was playwright in residence at Yale University. Walker performed in numerous stage productions during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, including The Believers. He also performed in films, such as April Fools (1969) and Bananas (1971).
In 1970 Walker and his wife, Dinroe-Walker, founded a musical-dance repertory company called Demi-Gods. Walker’s Ododo (the truth), a revolutionary, African American historical review, and Yin Yang, an African American view of the conflict between good and evil (featuring black women as God and Satan), were moderate successes. Walker’s emerging artistry climaxed, however, with the highly successful play The River Niger.
Walker is best known for The River Niger, which received many awards, including a Tony Award for best play, several Obie Awards, the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award from the Drama Guild, the Audelco Award, the John Gassner Award from the Outer Critics Circle, and a Drama Desk Award for most promising playwright. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1979. The River Niger was a beacon of the Black Arts movement of the 1970’s because it was unquestionably semiautobiographical theater examining the realities of a struggling black family and the African American symbolic vision of the African heritage. The play also treats universal philosophical themes, such as parents’ relationships with and responsibilities to their grown children, protest and self-actualization, and the function of poetry and art in the lives of working-class families.
Barbara and Carlton Mollette in Black Theatre: Premise and Presentation (1992) refer to Walker in their chapter “Afrocentric Heroes” because The River Niger embodies traditional African-centered values that prioritize the success of the family and the prosperity of the race. In an African-centered analysis, Walker’s other plays, such as Ododo, Yin Yang, and Believers (which addresses the oppression and self-defense strategies of African American men), are culturally significant. Some critics regarded the direct racial and revolutionary context of these plays as threatening, whereby the subtle, or sophisticated, racial context of The River Niger found a wider audience. The River Niger was adapted into a film production in 1976. Walker wrote the screenplay for the film, which starred Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.