Anne Galjour is a true fringe artist from the literal outer edge of American life. She was born, raised and spiritually nourished in Lafourche Parish, a tiny settlement so far out on the Mississippi Delta, it's just a hurricane away from being part of the Gulf of Mexico. And hurricanes came frequently.
Two, in fact, blow through her new play, Alligator Tales, having its New York debut Oct. 21, 1997 at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II in the New York City Center. The play is directed by Seattle Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Sharon Ott, who staged the world premiere of Galjour's Hurricane and Mauvais Temps at Berkeley Rep.
So how did this gumbo-fed daughter of the bayou wind up a block and a half from Broadway? Well, as her family often did when gathered around a hot stove on a rainy night -- she tells the story.
"There's very much a feeling of being at the edge of the world," she said. "For centuries the only commerce we had was via boats coming down the bayou to sell coffee. In everything else it was self-sufficient. There's a lot of rich, rich soil. People even grew their own flax and made their own cloth. For many years that made it a closed community."
What did they do for entertainment? They cooked. And talked. "I grew up in the kitchen with my mother and all my aunts, my grandmothers and stuff," Galjour said. "They were storytellers. They would constantly be telling stories in both French and English. Somebody starts a story, another person picks it up, then another person. Soon you don't know where it started or where it ends. It's very, very beautiful that way, very circular. My people are naturally dramatic. Everything is big to them." Galjour picked up the ball, and in a series of monologues developed in her adopted home in California, she has spun these stories and her memories into characters large and small, who make their appearance in Alligator Tales.
There's Rosetta, who makes a habit of freshening up the makeup on her statue of the Virgin. And there's Urus Arceneaux, who has the misfortune to be struck by lightning. Twice. "Bless his heart," Galjour said, "he can't even trust the ground beneath his feet."
He's admired and coveted by Sherelle Dantin, who seeks to cast a spell over him with the simplest of dishes: peas and eggs in a roux over rice. "It's a very simple and traditional thing. Very lovely. Very appropriate."
All of them are channeled through their author in performance. Galjour (who says her name means "good day" in a French dialect), is a petite, dark-eyed woman who keeps her hair tied in a thick braid. She bows as she is introduced to you, and has a habit of entwining her arms inward against her chest as she chats. In performance, those arms throw wide, her fingers fiddle, her face muscles quiver. Her throaty voice can pipe for a female character, boom and growl for a male. There's no Cajun accent unless she needs to use one -- lost perhaps in her adult-life odyssey to California -- but she can flip between characters' accent and body language as quickly as you can flip a playing card.
She realized when she was still a teen-ager that she was going to move away. "I was very blessed: in high school I had a drama teacher who really inspired me and inspired others -- really put the fire within me to go for it. I also was fortunate in that my parents never said I should get my degree in education, you know. But I always knew I'd move away, I'd have to do that. If I were still living down there I'd still be listening and not writing." Galjour headed West with her husband in 1980 after she graduated from Nicholl's State University -- "we called it Harvard on the bayou." She arrived in San Francisco just as its alternative theatre scene was beginning to boom. After a stint as an actress, she took some time off to have a child.
"When my son got to be of age to hear bedtime stories, I began to get fascinated with children's literature, and became a children's storyteller."
She hasn't yet written a children's book, but has been commissioned by California's Berkeley Rep to write a children's play. There's no title yet, but Galjour knows, "It's about a troubled family and it's set in California, at the edge of the sea. There's a golden salmon that lets herself be caught and eaten by one of the family members to get wisdom."
A troubled family also stood at the heart of her first play, The Krewe of Neptune, which used New Orleans' Mardi Gras as a backdrop. Her 1994 one-act play, Hurricane debuted at Climate Theatre in San Francisco and won her the American Theatre Critics Association's Osborn Award for best emerging playwright. The double bill of Hurricane and Mauvais Temps (which translates as "Hard Times" and "Bad Weather") debuted there as well, and evolved into Alligator Tales.
Galjour has performed at theatres as widely scattered as the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Plaza Presents in Los Angeles, Aurora Theatre Company in Seattle and Theatre for the New City in New York.
But she never forgot that stove back in Louisiana.
"The food is everything," she said. "The ritual of preparing food is a very big deal."
At a press conference for her show, she personally stood there dishing out red beans and rice she'd cooked up herself the day before. Chunks of hot sausage made unsuspecting reporters' eyes go round at the first bite.
"I always get a kick out of seeing how far I can go," she said of her writing and performing. "I take advantage of the form -- it's not film, where you must be literal, or a conventional play. They're plays in my mind. But I'm giving you words and you're creating pictures in your mind. Because you're creating those pictures, your imagination is really working. You're making the movie in your mind, so its individual to you. I believe that if I evoke the sense, not just of sight and sound, but smell and taste and touch, then I've put you in the scene with my characters. We're all human beings and we perceive the world through our senses."
-- By Robert Viagas