This week’s open threads have highlighted the works of well known African-American Playwrights. In today’s spotlight, Joseph A. Walker.
Joseph Alexander Walker (1935–2003) was an African American playwright and screenwriter, theater director, actor and professor. He is best known for writing the play The River Niger, a three-act play that was originally produced Off-Broadway in 1972 by the Negro Ensemble Company before being transferred to Broadway in 1973 and then adapted into a 1976 film starring James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. In 1974, Walker became the first African American writer to win the Tony Award, being honored for The River Niger. The playwright previously won an Obie Award during that play’s 1972-1973 Off-Broadway run.
Walker was born in Washington, D.C to born to Joseph A. Walker and Florine G. Johnson. He earned an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Howard University and completed all requirements except the thesis for a Masters in Philosophy. In 1957, he entered the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant and later received a Masters of Fine Arts in Drama from Catholic University. In his later years, he taught Drama at Howard University and served as chairman of the Theater Department at Rutgers University.
Walker was one of the first African Americans, along with Lorraine Hansberry, to win the Tony Award for best promising play, which he won for The River Niger. His efforts and talents drew him critical acclaim at the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) with Douglas Turner Ward as the artistic director.The River Niger’s run was one of the NEC’s longest consecutive runs. Other works include the drama District Line, Yin-Yang, The Harangues (Tribal Harangue 1, 2,and 3), The Lion is a Soul Brother, Out of the Ashes, Absolution of Willie Mae, Koulaba D. Haiti, and the musical King Buddy Bolden.
Walker met his first wife, Barbara Ann, in philosophy class; they were married in September 1957. That same year Walker entered the Air Force, going first to San Antonio, Texas and then to Harlingen Air Force Base before serving as First Lieutenant, 2nd in command of 350 Airmen of the 42nd Supply Squadron. In 1958–60, while stationed at Loring Air Force Base, Walker became founder and artistic director of Pine Tree Theatre Guild. During that time, his first son, Michael Alexander Walker, was born. Walker’s second son, Steven Martin Walker, was born in 1962; that same year, Walker was discharged and decided to pursue an MFA in Theatre with a minor in Elizabethan Drama at Catholic University. During this time, Barbara Walker pursued her law degree.
Walker’s time in the Air Force is significant because the main character from The River Niger, Jeff Williams, was also discharged from the Air Force. Barbara Walker has stated that The River Niger may be semi-autobiographical.
He taught at Spingarn High School in Washington D.C. from 1963-1965 as an English/Drama teacher.
He then began the pursuit of an acting career in 1966. He began studying voice and vocal reproduction from Brook Alexander, and at the end of that year joined Voices, Inc. He remained narrator, lead singer and artistic director of this organization until The Believers was produced in 1968. The Believers was co-authored by Walker and Josephine Jackson.
In 1969 to 1975, he taught at C.C.N.Y Leonard Davis Center of Performing Arts, as an Associate Professor in the Speech and Theatre Department. Also in 1969 he met Moses Gun who introduced him to Douglas Turner Ward, the Artistic director of The Negro Ensemble Company, which led to the production of The Harangues, opening the 1969-1970 season. Ododo, which Walker wrote, directed and co-choreographed opened with mixed reviews in the 1970-1971 season at NEC, whose music was composed and directed by his second wife Dorothy Ann Dinroe-Walker, also a Howard University graduate. Walker married Dorothy A. Dinroe in 1970, a match made in their love for the arts.
During this time Walker, wanting to create his own theatre company thereby became the artistic director of the Demi-Gods. The Demi-Gods, was co-founded along with wife Dinroe-Walker, between 1970-74. In 1971-72, Walker along with Dorothy A. Walker co-produced Yin-Yang at the African American Studio. In 1972-73, Douglas Turner Ward went into production for the The River Niger. The response to The River Niger was so overwhelming that the play was moved to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway in 1973, where it won the Tony Award in 1974. It was this same year in which his first daughter was born, Kumina Walker.
Walker received 400 hours towards a Motion Picture Production Certificate received at the Germaine School of Photography, N.Y.C. in 1973. He also completed 28 credits towards his Ph.D. program in Cinema Studies at New York University, and was honored as Playwright-in-Residence at Yale School of Drama.
Walker spent his last years continuing his writings while maintaining full tenure as well as Theatre Arts Chair for Rutgers University’s Camden Campus. He is survived by his five children Michael Walker, Steven Walker, Kumina Walker, Nandi Walker and Jodoa Walker. Walker’s youngest son, Kamau Walker, predeceased him in 2001.
***Information courtesy of Wikipedia.org.***