Swamp Gravy: Hometown History Served up with Love

Originally published in Hometown Spotlight SE

You won’t find Swamp Gravy in any recipe book. It’s a dish served in Georgia fish camps. Fry up the day’s 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.

That’s the spirit of the play, Swamp Gravy. It’s the dramatization of the oral history of Colquitt, Ga. (pop 2,000); a reservoir of memories, moments, and incidents that make up life—all individual, but somehow, all familiar.

The production is the brainchild of Joy Jinks and Richard Geer. She was a resident of Colquitt, unhappily watching her rural town dwindle and become dispirited. He is a producer who uses theater to revitalize communities.

The two met at a conference on community development in New York City in 1991. Over lunch, he explained his theory about community theater. Intrigued, Joy said she was interested in a play about Colquitt. Richard vetoed the idea of a historical pageant, and encouraged her to tap into the area’s ‘real’ history.

“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, the Executive Director of the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council.

Like many others, she thought that recruiting local residents to stage a full-blown, professional-quality performance about a place like Colquitt was as unrealistic as planting a tropical rain forest in the sun-baked red Georgia clay.

The results proved Jinks and Geer right. The most obvious impact is economic. “In five and a half years, we’ve 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 meant a $1.5-million dollar impact to the town.

But everyone involved insists that economics are the least important thing. “It’s brought together people who you would normally not have given a second glance at,” says Veronica Haire, a cast member who has been with the show since it started. “Swamp Gravy is a family. It’s all about togetherness, family, and pride.”

Those friendships lead to dynamic off-stage community projects. Veronica and fellow cast member Gayle Grimsley joined forces to start Bounce, an after-school program. “We tutor them with homework and the arts, and in alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention.” In five years, they’ve helped more than 225 children.

The Museum of Southern Cultures recently opened in the converted cotton warehouse that’s also the Swamp Gravy theater. A children’s theater and museum are being built. The drawing power of the play inspired the formation of a regional tourism initiative, focusing on the arts, heritage, and ecology in Miller, Early, Seminole, Decatur, and Calhoun Counties.

At first, gathering the stories was the biggest challenge. A typical southern town, Colquitt has more than a few resident storytellers, and those were the first people interviewed. One high school teacher incorporated gathering oral histories from family into the curriculum, which gave them an even bigger pool to draw from. But folks were suspicious about the project and how their stories would be treated.

As the story-holders realized their secrets and lives were treated with respect, they began to approach the story-gatherers, stopping them in grocery stores and in parking lots. What they heard was sometimes stunning. One woman told of killing her husband after 14 years of abuse. Another saga was a child adopted out when she was only three weeks old and the life-long search of her older brother to find her. Both were incorporated into the play.

Even the cast has their own stories. Charlotte Phillips hadn’t been on stage since she was 17. That was during a beauty pageant. Struck by stage fright, she forgot the poem she was supposed to recite. She swore she’d never speak in public again. When Swamp Gravy came along, she helped build sets and worked backstage, then decided to audition for an acting role – by performing the poem she’d forgotten so many years before.

The show runs four weekends each spring and fall. It’s rewritten each year. The theme of the play changes – last year, it was Brothers and Sisters; this fall, it’s Love and Marriage – but the basic design of weaving together stories into a theatrical tapestry remains the same. Debra Jones, who took over as playwright last spring, considers herself a custodian of the stories and of the lives of the people who tell them.

“It’s really challenging to make it stageworthy and still remain true to those stories. I may take one person’s story and overlay it on somebody else’s, but I try not to turn someone into something they aren’t.”

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

The Swamp Gravy Institute was established in 1997. It holds workshops on storytelling, gathering oral histories, and planning with other communities curious about creating their own productions.

“We give people the tools, inspiration, and knowledge to be able to do their own project,” explains Bill Grow, the Institute’s director. He’s visited groups as diverse as a Hispanic center in El Paso, TX, a support group of independent disabled adults in Denver, and the Hurricane Floyd-ravaged town of Tarboro, NC.

“There is something about the stories that hits a chord in so many people,” says Debra Jones. “It’s a miraculous process.”