Written By Christine Dolen
Originally published on artburstmiami.com
Miami’s venerable M Ensemble Company was founded in 1971, the year before Joseph A. Walker’s “The River Niger” had its off-Broadway premiere. That first production by the Negro Ensemble Company won a best play Obie Award, transferred to Broadway in 1973, then captured the best play Tony Award in 1974.
Now, for its Black History Month season opener, M Ensemble has given new generations of actors the chance to explore and embody this 51-year-old piece of theater history.
Still led by Patricia E. Williams and Shirley Richardson, two of its three founders, M Ensemble has continued to enrich South Florida’s cultural life with professional productions of great Black plays and lesser known (or less often produced) ones. Despite its Tony Award, “The River Niger” falls into the latter category. It is resonant and relevant, but not enduringly impactful like “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” or “A Soldier’s Play,” for example.
Staged by Carbonell Award-winning actor-director André L. Gainey, Walker’s sprawling drama takes place inside a Harlem brownstone that the extended Williams family calls home.
Reflective of its early ‘70s era, the script explores issues that endure, disturb and haunt us still – the sacrificing of dreams, expectations we place on our offspring, the different ways Black men and women cope. The fraught, sometimes tragic relationship between the Black community and law enforcement – a story that never seems to end – is also part of “The River Niger.”
Multiple storylines intertwine, and at a running time of more than three hours (a single brief intermission comes more than two hours into the action), the production is in need of strategic tightening and a quicker pace. Too, the playwright’s device of having most scenes or segments begin with someone pounding on a door becomes so predictable that you start waiting for the next character to arrive.
Those 11 characters and the way this cast plays them, however, largely keep the audience engaged.
Patriarch John Williams (Chat Atkins, giving one of his strongest performances in his long history with M Ensemble) keeps food on the table and supports his wife’s extended family by painting houses. He discarded his dreams of becoming a lawyer but clings to his true passion: writing poetry. But late in the play, as he delivers the poem that gives “The River Niger” its title, we experience the powerful vestiges of what might have been.
His stalwart, loving wife Mattie (Jade L. Jones, who radiates a loyal warmth) has been complicit in John becoming an alcoholic. She pretends to fuss, to keep him in line, but she knows how much a lifetime of sacrifice has cost and wants him, in his 60s, to grab all the happiness he can.
Mattie’s mother Wilhelmina Brown, played with masterful comedic flair by Carbonell winner Carolyn Johnson-Davis, is there to get in everybody’s business, pass judgment and compete with her son-in-law at sneaking hidden booze. She lives there, but their Jamaica-born next-door neighbor Dr. Dudley Stanton (Keith C. Wade, another M Ensemble veteran who is an adept grounding force in this production) practically does, popping in and out to trade joking insults, debate politics, drink and loan John a little money when Mattie isn’t looking.
Everyone is waiting for a homecoming, the return of John and Mattie’s 25-year-old son Jeff (the magnetic Roderick Randle, so adept at conveying Jeff’s quicksilver emotional changes) from his time in the U.S. Air Force as a navigator. Among the surprises awaiting Jeff is Ann Vanderguild (Tyquisha Ariel Braynen), a South African-born nurse who met Jeff in Canada and aims to marry him.
Less welcome is Jeff’s old Harlem gang, a mixture of militants inspired by the Black Power movement and armed thugs ready to take what they want. Leader Big Moe Hayes (Jean Hyppolite) wants to draw his lifelong friend Jeff back into the group’s police-baiting criminal life. Jeff is determined to take on the law school part of his father’s abandoned dream and change his community that way.
Inevitably, tensions mount and explode. The gang members – junkie Skeeter (Martin Davis), sexual predator Chips (Xavier Latorture) and volatile Al (Kedar Myers) – bring danger with them every time they come through the door, though Moe’s girlfriend Gail (Nairobi) proves to be a positive force.
Set designer Mitchell Ost has created three key playing areas: a neatly kept living room (set dresser Patricia E. Williams wraps the sofa covered in protective plastic) and, just one step down, a neat kitchen. An extremely tall staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms becomes part of the action more than once, and you feel for Johnson-Davis’s Wilhelmina, who must climb up and come down it repeatedly.
Richardson and Chasity Hart collaborated on the costumes, making Braynen’s Ann look particularly ’70s chic. Quanikqua “Q” Bryant’s lighting underscores the emotional content of Jeff’s eventual confessional about his Air Force experience, and Marcus Banks threads a subdued yet ominous bass through the show.