Joseph A. Walker, Tony-Winning Playwright of The River Niger, Dead at 67

Obituaries   Joseph A. Walker, Tony-Winning Playwright of The River Niger, Dead at 67 Joseph A. Walker Jr., 1974 Tony Award-winning playwright of The River Niger, died Jan. 25, according to friends in the Philadelphia-Camden theatre community.

Mr. Walker, whose award-winning three-act play was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, was most recently a theatre professor at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where he once served as chairman of the department. He was 67 years old and had suffered a stroke in recent months.

Since his arrival to the Philadelphia area in the early 1990s, he directed and appeared in several productions, including two of his own pieces: The River Niger and the world premiere of his musical, King Buddy Bolden.

The River Niger — Mr. Walker's best-known work — was a godsend for the NEC, which was facing financial woes in the early 1970s. The Off-Broadway play (originating at St. Mark's Playhouse) about the struggles of a black family from Harlem was the first NEC work to move to Broadway; it ran nine months and went on a national tour. Douglas Turner Ward directed and played the central role of Johnny Williams on and Off Broadway.

The play won the 1973 Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play of the 1972-1973 season, and later the 1974 Best Play Tony for the 1973-74 season. Mr. Walker also snagged the Dramatists Guild Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The respected director-critic Harold Clurman said this about the play in his original review: "[The] play is somewhat untidy in construction and spills over into melodrama. These are blemishes, but they do not impair the pulse of truth and human energy that keep the play constantly engaging. Through its rough naturalism there runs a vein of authentic poetry of feeling and speech. The play has something naively 'romantic' about it and, though overwritten, is theatrically enlivening and emotionally stirring ..." The play concerns a failed poet and house-painter, Johnny Williams (played by Ward), whose son, Jeff (Les Roberts), is an officer in the Air Force. When Jeff decides to leave his career, the father gets drunk, but after sobering up, he "writes a long poem which attempts to finding meaning in the whole of the black experience," according to the "Oxford Companion to American Theatre."

The play was made into a 1976 movie that starred James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Lou Gossett. A new film version of The River Niger is in the works.

Mr. Walker was born in Washington, DC, and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Howard University (he would later teach there, 1989-92). After a stint in the Air Force, where he rose to first lieutenant, he earned a masters degree drama from Catholic University. His second wife, musician-composer Dorothy Ann Walker, predeceased Mr. Walker.

At Rutgers-Camden Mr. Walker directed Godspell, No Exit, The Colored Museum and directed and appeared in The Amen Corner, among other productions.

Donovan Hagins, a Philadelphia actor who, as a young performer, was encouraged by Mr. Walker in 1994, told Playbill On-Line the playwright-director was known as "the Lion" for his roaring voice and directorial comments.

"But he was a gentle lion," Hagins said. "He's where I got my start. I was a guest artist in Amen Corner and he called me a natural, and guided me. He was encouraging to everyone and demanding at the same time. His main thing was pretty much like the Nike commercial: 'Just do it.' Don't complain, just do it."

Hagins would later earn a degree from Temple University and become a working Actors' Equity member in Philadelphia.

"He encouraged me to go on," Hagins said.

Survivors include two sons, Michael and Steven, and three daughters, Jodoa, Nandi and Kumina. Services will be held 11 AM Feb. 1 at Frazier Funeral Home, 389 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC.