ByTeresa Cheeks Wilson
Thursday morning breakfast at the 2009 Exploring Innovation conference featured a performance of Swamp Gravy, the official folk-life play of Georgia. Based on the real-life experiences of residents of Colquitt, Ga., this crowd-pleasing blend of comedy, drama and music annually attracts tourists from far and near. With a population of 2,000, Colquitt exemplifies the successful economic revitalization of a small rural town through cultural tourism.
Several Swamp Gravy cast members traveled from Colquitt, Ga., to St. Louis to stage a short performance of the folk-life play.
While attending a conference on community development in 1991, Joy Jinks, a resident of Colquitt, Ga., met Richard Geer, a student who was doing research on performance as a community-building tool. Jinks talked with Geer about her town's dwindling population and her desire to preserve its rich heritage and instill civic pride in fellow residents.
That chance meeting developed into a project involving Geer and Colquitt community volunteers, who collected and recorded stories from resident storytellers. Their stories were later adapted into play format. After songs and music were added, Swamp Gravy was born.
(The name Swamp Gravy comes from a stew-like dish made from a blend of fried fish drippings and whatever is on hand in the kitchen. The dish is native to the area and Georgia fish camps.)
The first performance of Swamp Gravy was held in the Miller County Elementary School auditorium to a sold-out crowd. The play was so successful that the group began looking for a larger location.
Newton Allen, a local resident, loaned them an old cotton warehouse. Despite the fact that it had a dirt floor, the group took him up on his offer and, after some cleaning and preparation, held its first performance in the new location in 1994.
The organization has since purchased and completely renovated the warehouse, which is now known as the Cotton Hall, Swamp Gravy Theater. The theater offers state-of-the-art lighting, creative sets and multilevel staging. The design of the theater offers good views from every seat. The once dirt floor is now brick and cement, and a loading dock and old Ford truck are part of the sets. The hall includes the Storytelling Museum, which was designed to be reminiscent of Colquitt's town square.
By promoting economic development through the arts, Swamp Gravy has had a great impact in southwest Georgia. The Swamp Gravy Institute, an arts service organization, is an outgrowth of Swamp Gravy. The institute holds workshops on storytelling, gathering oral histories and helping other communities create their own production. The Jokara-Micheaux Film Studio has an annual film festival, which showcases southwest Georgia as a movie location. An after-school program called Bounce tutors students with homework and in the arts.
Swamp Gravy also was the inspiration behind a regional tourism initiative focusing on the arts, heritage and ecology. There is also a how-to manual on cultural tourism.
In the first five-and-a-half years of the project, 50,000 tickets were sold to tourists. The play has increased the revenue for Miller County by $2 million annually and has created several full-time and part-time jobs.
The Swamp Gravy players also have taken their show on the road, performing at Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
For more information, go to www.swampgravy.com.