Old Man River

Joseph A. Walker's 1973 Harlem drama hasn't aged well

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company has embarked on an admirable endeavor to revisit plays first produced by New York's revered Negro Ensemble Company during its heyday in the 1960s and early '70s. So in theory anyway, it probably makes sense to mount Joseph A. Walker's impassioned drama The River Niger, which in 1973 was one of the Negro Ensemble Company's most acclaimed offerings.

But distant legends are sometimes best left to resonate in the mist of memory. The River Niger may have offered powerful theater 30 years ago, but today the script seems bloated, self-indulgent and sloppily written.

The story plays out in Harlem over the course of a February week in the turbulent early 1970s. Everyone in the Williams family is eagerly awaiting the homecoming of son Jeff (Ronald L. Conner) after his tenure in the Strategic Air Command. Jeff's mother (Lisa Rachel Harris) is a good woman who of late has been ominously sapped of energy. His proud father (Erik Kilpatrick) is an alcoholic housepainter-poet who views himself as a fighter without a battlefield. Just about everyone in the Williams home is harboring a secret. Some of these secrets, like Grandma's stash of booze in the kitchen, are innocuous enough; others bespeak lives lived in deception and frustration.

Fannie Belle, Eddie Webb, Lisa Harris and Erik Kilpatrick navigate the muddled River Niger.
Stewart Goldstein
Fannie Belle, Eddie Webb, Lisa Harris and Erik Kilpatrick navigate the muddled River Niger.

A secondary plot concerns Jeff's former cronies from his street-gang days. Apparently, one of the gang got himself killed, and now the others are out for revenge. Bewildering though that storyline may sound, some of the opening-night audience was able to follow it. And as it played out, they were snickering from embarrassment.

Okay, so The River Niger is hopelessly dated. But surely there's a way to stage this didactic drama so as to inform audience members that they're entering a time capsule. Buddy Butler, the play's original Broadway stage manager, seemed an ideal choice to direct this revival. But his production is mired in lethargy. The play is set in February, yet no one bothers to close the front door (which, curiously, opens out rather than in). A man pays out $190, hardly a round sum, without looking at his bills. An offstage bass accompaniment intended to complement the dialogue is instead confusing; at the outset it sounds like a radio no one had bothered to turn off. Late in the evening, the sound of a rainfall is so loud that it drowns out the actors' voices. In most plays the appearance of a gun is sure to elicit tension; here the guns might as well be so many toys.

Worst of all, the production refuses to acknowledge the play's crucial time frame. Although the playbill informs us that Act I occurs at 4:30 p.m. (a useless detail) on February 1, it does not tell us in what year the play is set. Then, despite the fact that The River Niger was written as a three-act drama, the Black Rep combines acts one and two into a 100-minute marathon. Why is it such a hardship these days for theaters to perform three-act plays as originally conceived? Are viewers in such a rush that we cannot allot an extra twelve minutes to a second intermission? If it's worthwhile to revive this play, why not revive it as it was written? Amazingly, this production runs only ten minutes longer than Oliver! around the corner at the Fox, but with a 100-minute first act, it feels twice as long.

Aside from that perplexing front door, Dunsi Dai has designed a handsome set that reveals the dignity of the Williams family. Richon May delivers a sincere, attractive performance as a young South African woman who's determined to impose herself on the household. But ultimately she, and just about everyone onstage, is shortchanged by the author. When the characters aren't talking, too often they're left with nothing to do, with no inner life to fill out. Surely these actors, even more than the audience, realize how meanderingly verbose this play is. Perhaps that's why a lack of fervor, so atypical of the Black Rep, seems to pervade the entire evening.

 
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