Joseph A. Walker

(b. 1935)

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(b. 1935), director, choreographer, actor, educator,

Tony Award winner, and leading African American playwright of the 1970s. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1935, to working-class parents, Joseph A. Walker began his theatrical career in college with acting roles in several student productions at Howard University. He received his BA in 1956 and went on to begin graduate work in philosophy and serve a term in the U.S. Air Force before deciding to pursue a career in theater.

Like the young protagonist, Jeff, in his most famous play, The River Niger, Walker began military service as a navigation student but found himself too distracted by poetic impulses to continue. Rather than drop out altogether like his fictional creation, however, Walker persevered in the corps, becoming a first lieutenant and second-in-command of his squadron before his discharge in 1960. Evidently he emerged even more determined to write.

With an MFA from Catholic University (1963), Walker embarked on a teaching career—at secondary school in Washington, D.C., at the City College of New York, and finally at Howard University—which proved more amenable to his artistic pursuits. The young Walker had melded his poetic and theatrical abilities and began to show promise as a playwright, and from 1970 to 1971 he was playwright in residence at Yale University. He continued to appear on stage periodically as well during his most productive playwriting years—the late 1960s and early 1970s. He has also had roles in two motion pictures and has various television performances to his credit, including two in Emmynominated productions.

Walker's first Off-Broadway production, a coauthored musical, The Believers, was given a single performance at New York's Garrick Theatre in May 1968. Then, in 1969, Walker's first professional solo piece was mounted Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), where Walker had been working as an understudy. The play—a series of four one-act works dealing with black men's anger and rebellion in the face of various oppressions—ran a full six weeks to generally positive reviews.

Dorothy Dinroe, who had provided musical collaboration on The Harangues, became Walker's second wife and professional partner in 1970 (he had divorced in 1965), when they founded their own musical-dance repertory company, the Demi-Gods. Walker was artistic director, writing and choreographing for the ensemble. The company struggled financially but served as an inspired and inspiring workshop and showcase for Walker's (and Dinroe-Walker's) creativity.

Ododo was the first play to come out of this new venture. Subtitled a “musical epic,” the piece was a review of African American history, emphasizing the inevitability of “the black man's” emergence as a revolutionary. Not performed by the Demi-Gods until 1973 (at Howard University), NEC's production of Ododo opened to mixed reviews at St. Mark's Playhouse on 24 November 1970. Some critics considered the play too threatening, and others have since viewed it as lacking the sophistication of Walker's later work.

The Demi-Gods mounted the premiere production of Walker's most experimental play, Yin-Yang, at the Afro-American Studio in New York in June 1972. This theatrical collage reappeared around New York (including Off-Broadway) and at Howard University over the next two years. Dramatizing ancient and biblical conflicts between good and evil, the piece portrays God as “a hip swinging, fast talking Black mama… in conflict with Miss Satan, who is also a Black female swinger” (Walker, “Broadway's Vitality,” New York Times 5 Aug. 1973). Yin-Yang too met with a mixed, if more heated, response from critics and theater-goers.


Subjects: Literature.

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