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State’s official folklife play returns with fresh stories in October

Q: I heard that a play is revived in south Georgia every year. What is it and how long has it been performed?

A: “You’ve got a story, and I’ve got a story. We’ve all got a story to tell.”

So begins each production of “Swamp Gravy,” Georgia’s official folklife play, which is performed every October and March in Colquitt, a small town in southwest Georgia’s Miller County.

On the surface, the play may seem like a collection of stories with a simple underlying theme, but Kate Willis, its artistic director, said “Swamp Gravy” represents so much more.

“It’s a show about life,” Willis said.

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The play is composed of a variety of stories that are taken “from the people, by the people, for the people,” Willis said. Volunteer playwrights canvass Miller County and interview residents. Then the cast is comprised of about 80-100 volunteers of all ages from southwest Georgia.

She added that the goal of “Swamp Gravy” has been to help citizens and businesses in Miller County, which according to the U.S. Census has almost 6,000 residents. By the early 1990s, young people were leaving the area and businesses were closing, she said. Local resident Joy Jinks knew something had to change and expressed her concerns to Richard Geer, a Ph.D. student, who was then working on a dissertation about community theater, Willis said.

The two worked together with the community to create “Swamp Gravy.” In October 1992, the first performance at the Miller County Elementary School auditorium was intended to be a one-time presentation. But the show sold out, according to swampgravy.com.

A second performance held the next month during Thanksgiving weekend also quickly sold out. By 1993, the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council was traveling the state to promote “Swamp Gravy.”

In 1994, the production moved to its new home in Cotton Hall, a refurbished cotton warehouse that was built in the 1930s in downtown Colquitt. When the boll weevil came, stopping cotton production, the building became a storage unit. When Geer saw it, he thought it would be perfect for a theater, Willis said. At the time, there was a stage and electricity, but the hall had no air conditioning or plumbing. The crowd sat on football bleachers to watch the play.

Through funding from grants and a capital campaign, Cotton Hall today houses 284 seats in the round.

“It’s a gorgeous building,” Willis said. “It’s amazing to think how far it came.”

After 25 years, “Swamp Gravy” has generated attention for the community. Shops and restaurants have opened in Colquitt, Willis said, with the help of small business incubator Market on the Square. Visitors from as far away as Australia, Austria and China have traveled to Miller County for performances.

Do you have a question about metro Atlanta or the further reaches of the state?We’ll try to get the answer. Call 404-222-2002 or email q&a@ajc.com (include name, phone and city).

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