Rural Town Dramatizes Its Stories

'Swamp Gravy' tells compelling tales from the heart of community life in Colquitt, Georgia

Sandwiched between peanut fields and ponds of red mayhaw berries, which are harvested for jelly, Colquitt, Ga., is sometimes referred to as the peanut-butter-and-jelly capital of the United States. But besides its crops, this town of 2,000 in the rural southwest corner of the state is becoming known throughout Georgia and parts of the Southeast for something else -- a homegrown folk play called ''Swamp Gravy.''

''Swamp Gravy'' is a collection of oral histories, family stories, and folk tales gleaned from local residents about everyday life, much of it from the first half of this century. Though professionally written, designed, and directed, the actors are untrained townspeople.

The town has been performing its authentic brand of Southern culture since 1992. Performances have drawn audiences from the surrounding rural counties of Georgia and Alabama, as well as from Tallahassee, Fla., and Atlanta.

In 1994, and again this year, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games selected ''Swamp Gravy'' to be a Cultural Olympiad event. Atlanta's Cultural Olympiad is a four-year festival that celebrates regional and international art and culture in the months preceding and during the 1996 games.

''Swamp Gravy'' and a number of Southern arts organizations, such as the renowned Spoleto Festival, will be featured in 20 million brochures promoting excellence in Southern arts. In addition, the Georgia Legislature voted ''Swamp Gravy'' as the state's official folklife play.

But even more meaningful than these honors, townspeople say, is how the play has changed Colquitt.

''Swamp Gravy'' has united whites, blacks, welfare recipients, and millionaires,'' says Gayle Grimsley, a supply clerk for an oil company and now a part-time actress. '' 'Swamp Gravy' is a family.''

''It's bonded all segments of the community,'' adds Karen Kimbrel, who wrote the music and is the play's coordinator. ''We all work together, and it's not a mandated thing; it's something we want to do because we love what we're doing, and we love the place where we live.''

The idea to produce ''Swamp Gravy'' arose in 1990. At the time, several women on the local arts council were looking for a way to revive the community and attract people to Miller County, whose population is about 6,200.

We want to keep Colquitt from dying,'' says Charlotte Phillips, who performs in the play. ''Our young people leave and don't come back.''

The arts council invited Richard Geer, a theater director and teacher from Chicago, to visit the town. Mr. Geer and the arts council decided to record the oral histories of the area and base the play on true stories. Soon after, humanities scholars began training townspeople on how to record these stories.

''People who've given us their stories -- they're fascinating,'' says Sara Ann Keaton, story-gathering chairperson. ''Mostly we'd gather stories from our older people. We'd ask them to tell us about their growing-up years.''

The stories Ms. Keaton and others collected are snippets of the life and culture of rural Georgia. There's the story about a preacher's wife who accompanies her husband to a Sunday dinner and can't stomach the food, especially the pudding sprinkled with ''raisins'' that fly off when put on the table. There are tales about hog-killing season, and what it was like to give hair perms on an old electric hair curler that looked like a contraption from a Frankenstein movie.

After the stories were collected, Tennessee playwright Jo Carson adapted them for the stage. The project was dubbed ''Swamp Gravy'' after a local southern stew of tomatoes, fish, onions, potatoes, and whatever else might be on hand to stretch a fish catch. Like its namesake, ''Swamp Gravy'' the play is a concoction of whatever is available -- in this case, an almost endless supply of folk tales.

In 1992 the town did a mini- production called ''Swamp Gravy Sketches'' -- ''just to get our feet wet,'' Ms. Kimbrel says. They performed their first major production of ''Swamp Gravy'' in spring 1994, and it was deemed such a success they have decided to stage it twice a year, using new material each time.

Everything was not always harmonious, however. Some racial tensions flared during rehearsals and productions, but many involved say the play has been an agent of change within the community, as the issues and history of blacks and whites are brought to the surface in theater form. The play has also been a way to uncover secrets and heal horrors of the past, Geer says. One vignette, for example, deals with a resident who sexually abused young girls.

Indeed many of the townspeople are familiar with the characters whose stories they are acting out. In four current sketches, Jakie Draper plays the daughter whose father is saved three times from fire. Ms. Draper is actually playing herself and telling her father's true story.

About 100 townspeople perform in the production. Most have never had acting experience, though some participated in performance workshops.

''These people know these stories in a way that gives them authority,'' Geer says.

''We're not actors, but if we feel it in our heart, that's where the authenticity comes through,'' Ms. Phillips says. ''And we don't have to learn the dialect.''

''Swamp Gravy'' is performed in a renovated cotton warehouse off Colquitt's town square. The floor is covered with oak chips, and actors share several raised performance spaces, including a 1936 truck. Costumes are farm clothing dating from the turn of the century to the 1930s.

Since ''Swamp Gravy'' debuted, other rural towns and the cities of Chicago and Albuquerque, N.M., are trying to replicate it, Geer says.

While ''Swamp Gravy'' has brought tourist dollars to Colquitt and its county, the biggest benefits are to its citizens, says Joy Jinks, one of the women who initiated the project. ''It's built self-esteem in our people,'' Ms. Jinks says. ''People have taken pride in the community.''

*''Swamp Gravy'' will be performed next month and again in autumn. Dates include: April 1, 2, 7, 8; Oct. 20, 21, 28, 29; Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19.

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