Family Drama Abounds in “The River Niger”

Family Drama Abounds in "The River Niger"Family Drama Abounds in “The River Niger” by Darlene Donloe | LA Watts: November 26, 2009

A good reason to see “The River Niger” is because it was the first play by an African American writer (Joseph A. Walker) to win a Tony Award. Another good reason is to see Ben Guillory, who gives one of the best performances of the year. Watching him inhabit the character of Johnny Williams, a poem-writing house painter, is like observing a master thespian at work. All at once he is engaging, intense, witty, philosophical, bitter, unapologetic, bullheaded, simplistic, complicated, unsure, confident, defiant and loving. It’s a tour de force for Guillory, who, from the moment he hits the stage, brings his colorful character to life. Authentic, commanding and yet vulnerable in the role, when Guillory is not on stage, you wish he were. He delivers a performance that is affecting and impressive.

“The River Niger,” set in Harlem, is a poignant family drama, an examination of black individuality and a heartrending allegory about love.It’s the story of the Williams family. There’s Johnny, the alcoholic patriarch; his wife, Mattie (Margaret Avery), who is a strong woman but who must become even more resilient after hearing some troubling news. And then there’s their son Jeff (Dane Diamond), who is coming home after what his parents mistakenly think was a successful tour of duty as an Air Force navigator. It all comes out in the wash as, one by one, layers are peeled back and secrets and situations are revealed. The “B” story involves some old friends of Jeff’s (Big Mo, Gail, Chips, Skeeter and Al) who have formed a black revolutionary army of five. The twist is that one of them is apparently a police informant. This subplot is not as interesting as the one surrounding the family, but it helps move the story along. Avery and Guillory, who last played opposite each other in “The Color Purple,” still have chemistry. Alex Morris, who plays Dr. Dudley Stanton, Williams’ friend and physician, is a standout as he goes toe-to-toe with Guillory, matching him stride-for-stride as they waltz around the stage. The rest of the cast is sturdy and effectively buoys the production.”The River Niger” is presented by the Robey Theatre Co. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. It plays at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Dec. 20. Costs: $20 to $30. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

For information, call (213) 489-0994, ext. 107, or visit www.thelatc. org.

On the Donloe Scale, D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (OK) and E (excellent), “The River Niger” gets an O (OK).