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Anne Galjour's Okra
Served With Perfect Proportions of Spice and Drama
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 18, 2004
To my dismay, there aren't too many Cajun restaurants in the city that I can reference offhand when the craving for piping hot jambalaya, crawfish casserole and oyster touffee hits me every once in a while. You can imagine my pleasure on discovering that Okra, the newest play at the Brava Theater Center, serves up a walloping bowl of gumbo at the end of each performance. But it's not just the gumbo that sits well- everything in monologist Anne Galjour's latest dark comedy is evocative of a summer night by the steamy bayou, underneath lush bumbershoots of magnolia trees. Galjour brings to mind the sensuality of Tennessee Williams, but that's where the similarities end. While Williams' oeuvre is filled to capacity with incestuous clans and claustrophobic bourgeois nightmares, Okra is a flavorful stew with just the right mixture of meddling relatives, proud matriarchs, and impetuous belles dames. Teeming with filial tensions, romance, and an exploration of the prejudice that lies at the heart of the South's tortured past, it's a saga as distinct as the cuisine that peppers the story.
Set in the French-speaking wing of Louisiana, Okra simmers with family vendettas and confused genealogies; in effect, it's prime material for some old-fashioned storytelling. Lillian Bourgeois, the dyspeptic matriarch (played by Frances McCain), maintains a solemn appreciation for old world mores and customs. The arrival of French cousin Henri (Ron Campbell) challenges the status quo, which adds insult to injury for Lillian, who is already at blows with her two fed-up, headstrong daughters. Claudine (Jeri Lynn Cohen) and Marie (Anne Darraugh) deal with their aging mother's self-indulgence, and with issues of identity, family heritage and their independence as adult women. Both Henri and their biracial neighbor Antoine (Joseph K. McDowell) stir things up in an atmosphere already crawling with dissent and suspicion. Predictably, romance blossoms, with Marie admitting her affection for Antoine and Claudine falling for cousin Henri. While Antoine can trace his family tree back to some of the same French roots of his neighbors (and, also back to west Africa, another region responsible for the Cajun mix), Lillian refuses to welcome him into the family. More complications ensue and the performance runs the gamut from melodrama to slapstick. And just like the gumbo, it's a matter of adding the right ingredients at the right time.
The cast is delightful, and McCain's portrayal of the larger than life Lillian is particularly impressive as she vacillates between neurotic and composed. Campbell's performance as the smooth, silver-tongued Henri is dexterously infused with physical comedy. Unfortunately, the dialogue lacks the authenticity of Louisiana dialects and accents, and the three actresses, while expertly creating riveting characters and a believable tempo, aren't entirely convincing with their drawls and "I do declares".
Galjour is originally from Louisiana but has lived in San Francisco for 24 years and currently teaches play writing in San Francisco State University's Creative Writing Department. Galjour is known for her moving and humorous depictions of the cultural issues faced by Cajuns, including disconnection from an ancestral language and home, assimilation, and racism. The subtext for Okra, a glance at the enduring racism and bigotry in Cajun culture (which emphasizes French over African), is expertly interwoven into the familial drama that is at the heart of the play. Galjour is also known for concocting texts that are cinematic, which is easy to detect in Okra and its sweeping images of sultry ladykillers, towering estates and endless summer nights on the bayou.
Brava Theater Center
2781 24th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Performed through March 14th
Showtimes: Wednesday - Saturday at 8 pm
Admission: fee/admission: $18-$28
by Nirmala Nataraj on Aug 18, 2004