Swamp Gravy Renews Town

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on September 24, 2000

You wont find swamp gravy in any recipe book; its a dish served in Georgia fish camps. Fry up the days catch, then toss in whatever else you have on hand. The result is as individual as the person who made it, but recognized by everyone else.

Thats the spirit of the play, Swamp Gravy. Its the dramatization of the oral history of Colquitt, Ga. (pop. 2,000); a reservoir of memories and incidents that make up lifeall individual, but somehow, all familiar.

The production is the brainchild of Joy Jinks and Richard Geer. Jinks was a resident of Colquitt, unhappily watching her rural town dwindle and become dispirited 10 years ago. Geer is a producer who uses theater to revitalize communities. The two met in New York City in 1991 at a conference on community development, where Geer encouraged Jinks to tap into her towns history. Together, they convinced the residents that a play would help reinstill civic pride.

The theory was that you tell the stories of a place and its people, and through that process the community is bonded, and people are empowered, explains Karen Kimbrel, executive director of the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council. Like other townspeople, she thought recruiting local residents to stage a professional-quality performance about Colquitt was as unrealistic as planting a tropical rain forest in the sun-baked red Georgia clay.

Gathering subject matter was the first and greatest challenge. Colquitt has more than a few resident storytellers, but many were suspicious about how their oral histories would be treated. As they realized their life stories were handled with respect, the words began to flow, giving life to Swamp Gravy.

And the results proved Jinks and Geer right. The most obvious impact is economic. In five-and-a-half years, weve sold 50,000 tickets, Jinks says. Most of those are to out-of-town visitors. These people have a meal, buy gasoline, or stay at lodging establishments. She estimates the play has brought $1.5 million to the town.

But economics are of the least importance. Its brought together people who you would normally not have given a second glance at, says Veronica Haire, a cast member. Swamp Gravy is a family. Its all about togetherness, family, and pride.

Those friendships led to dynamic off-stage community projects. Haire and fellow cast member Gayle Grimsley joined forces to start Bounce, an after-school program. We tutor (students) with homework and the arts, and in alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention.

And the plays cultural impact continues: The Museum of Southern Cultures recently opened in the converted cotton warehouse that serves as the Swamp Gravy theater; a childrens theater and museum are being built; and the drawing power of the play inspired the formation of a regional tourism initiative, focusing on the arts, heritage, and ecology in Colquitts Miller County as well as Early, Seminole, Decatur, and Calhoun counties.

The show runs four weekends each spring and fall and is rewritten each year. Although the theme of the play changeslast year, it was Brothers and Sisters; this fall, Love and Marriagethe basic design of weaving together stories into a theatrical tapestry remains the same.

Debra Jones took over as playwright last spring and considers herself a custodian of the stories and of the lives of the people who tell them.

Its really challenging to make it stageworthy and still remain true to those stories. I may take one persons story and overlay it on somebody elses, but I try not to turn someone into something theyre not.

From the first uncertain performance, Swamp Gravy has become a Georgia fixture. Named the states folk life play in 1994, it now tours the entire state, and vignettes from the show are performed throughout the country, including a showing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The Swamp Gravy Institute, established in 1997, holds workshops on storytelling, gathering oral histories, and helping other communities create their own productions.

We give people the tools, inspiration, and knowledge to be able to do their own project, explains Bill Grow, the institutes director. Hes visited groups as diverse as a Hispanic center in El Paso, Texas, a support group of independent, disabled adults in Denver, and the Hurricane Floyd-ravaged town of Tarboro, N.C.

There is something about the stories that hits a chord in so many people, Jones says. Its a miraculous process.