Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s official state folklife play, is performed annually from July to October in Colquitt, the seat of Miller County in south Georgia. The play had its origins in a chance meeting at a New York conference in 1990 between Joy Jinks of Colquitt and Richard Owen Geer, at that time a doctoral student in performance studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Jinks expressed her concern about Miller County’s economic decline and the growing number of southwest Georgia youths who left the region after graduation. When she mentioned that her community wanted to do a play celebrating its history, Geer told her of his dissertation research on performance as a community-building tool and suggested that they work together to develop a play for Colquitt based on stories from the lives of Miller County residents.
Six months later, Geer met with the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council, and the project was dubbed “Swamp Gravy,” named after the soup made in southwest Georgia fish camps from the drippings left from fried fish, along with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and whatever else is available to throw in the pan. The community play was to be a musical based on the stories of Miller Countians, Black and white, captured on tape and transformed into a script by Tennessee playwright Jo Carson.
When Swamp Gravy Sketches opened to rave reviews in fall 1992, the cast consisted completely of local residents. After more than thirty performances around the state in 1993, Swamp Gravy received a 1994 Cultural Olympiad Award in Atlanta and was performed there in 1996 at the Olympic Games and later at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Storytelling is at the heart of Swamp Gravy. According to Geer, “Northerners tell stories in private and call it therapy. Southerners tell stories in public and call it swapping lies.” Each performance of Swamp Gravy begins with the lyrics, “You’ve got a story and I’ve got a story. We’ve all got a story to tell.” Concluding the performance is a candlelight roll call of deceased storytellers and characters as the 90- to 100-member cast hums “Amazing Grace.”
Each year new stories are added, replacing some of the previous tales, and a new theme characterizes the season’s performances. Among the annual themes have been work, religion, medicine, crime and punishment, local media, and marital and sibling relationships. Some of the stories deal with such difficult themes as racism, spousal abuse, and pedophilia. From its beginning, one of the goals of Swamp Gravy has been to bridge the racial divide in this predominantly (80 percent) white county, and the cast has always been integrated, with African American cast members in approximately the same percentage as in the county’s population as a whole.
Beginning in 1994 Swamp Gravy has been performed in an old cotton warehouse in Colquitt. Recently renovated, with air conditioning replacing electric fans and theater seats replacing bleachers, the warehouse theater retains the production’s several stages and pit. A number of those attending choose to stand in the pit or sit on the edge of the stages, where they find themselves surrounded by cast members and can feel as though they are part of the production.
The impact of Swamp Gravy has been felt around the nation as cast members trained as Swamp Gravy Institute consultants share their art-based community revitalization experiences in communities in Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, and Florida and in other Georgia counties as well.