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Colquitt's Swamp Gravy marks 20 years

Joy Jinks, left, and Karen Kimbrel hold Swamp Gravy's 20th anniversary sign outside the Cotton Hall theater in downtown Colquitt. For two decades, Miller County residents have been sharing their sometimes tall tales that reflect the humor, music and heart of rural Southwest Georgia.

Joy Jinks, left, and Karen Kimbrel hold Swamp Gravy's 20th anniversary sign outside the Cotton Hall theater in downtown Colquitt. For two decades, Miller County residents have been sharing their sometimes tall tales that reflect the humor, music and heart of rural Southwest Georgia.

COLQUITT, Ga. -- Joy Jinks, one of four remarkable Colquitt women who dreamed the folk life play Swamp Gravy into existence, has a unique perspective on taking what life has to offer and making the best of it.

"The best thing you can give people is inspiration," Jinks said during a recent conversation.

The people of this tiny community have been riding the inspiration of the dream Jinks, Karen Kimbrel, Charlotte Phillips and Iva Tabb brought to life 20 years ago, and they've become inspirational in their own right in creating the official state-recognized folk life play that has been performed at the Kennedy Center in the nation's capital, received a Cultural Olympiad Award at the 1996 Olympic Games and has brought millions of dollars into a community that, Jinks says, was in the process of dying when Swamp Gravy was born.

"We were desperate," Jinks said. "We needed something here to turn things around, but there was no industry that was going to come to Colquitt, Georgia. So we came up with a way to celebrate ourselves."

Swamp Gravy's beginnings materialized in 1990 in, of all places, upstate New York when Jinks met Richard Geer at a conference.

"No, it wasn't the actor Richard Geer," Kimbrel interjects, anticipating the next question. "However, we did have a lot of women sign up for our first meeting when they saw that name."

This Richard Geer was a Chicago theater director whose theory was that any community could erase boundaries that surround such issues as race, social class, age and gender if it collected and retold its stories. Jinx bought into the concept.

She came back to Southwest Georgia, recruited others who shared her zeal for action over inactivity, and they worked with Geer to bring Swamp Gravy to life. A year and a half later, "Swamp Gravy: Sketches" made its debut at the Miller County Elementary School auditorium.

"That first production was the result of our passion and our faith in this community," Kimbrel, a marketing professional, said. "The four of us (Kimbrel, Jinks, Phillips and Tabb) convinced four other people to get involved, and those four convinced eight more. We told the people in the community we were interested in gathering and telling their stories."

Jo Carson wrote the first Swamp Gravy production (and the next six that followed) based on the tales of the community's work ethic, weaving scenes of local citizens working in the cotton fields and hoeing peanuts into the narrative.

The production was a local hit that gradually but steadily gathered steam. By 1994 it had been proclaimed Georgia's official folk life play by the state General Assembly, and by 1996 the troupe of citizen actors had played command performances at the Kennedy Center for the Arts.

"There was the matter of the cost of taking the production and everyone involved up to Washington, but Miller Brewing awarded Swamp Gravy a $35,000 grant for that purpose," Kimbrel said. "There was a lot of hemming and hawing and discussing whether we -- this being the heart of the Bible belt -- wanted to use money from a company that produced alcoholic beverages to finance the trip.

"Gail Grimsley, one of the local citizens who was in that play, said, 'I believe the devil's had that money long enough. It's time we let the Lord put it to good use.' Everyone just came to an agreement after that."

So 86 local citizens loaded up and traveled to Washington, many of them leaving the state for the first time. On the day of the two performances, Kimbrel visited the box office to inquire about ticket sales.

"I told them we generally sold out our shows back home and asked how ticket sales were going," she said. "The lady at the box office told me when the waiting list reached 100, she just threw it away."

Since the premiere production of Swamp Gravy, local actors have performed new plays based on the community's history, offering their take on such local topics of interest as "The Blue Doctor," "Good Medicine," "The Gospel Truth," "Special Edition," "The Rock and a Hard Place," "Brothers and Sisters," "Love and Marriage," "The Land Between Two Rivers," "On the Square," "Down at the Depot," "Saints and Sinners," "Visiting Hours," "Reunion," "Ain't No Tellin'," "The Big Picture," "Solid Ground" and "Live and Learn."

The script for that final play in the list was written by local Swamp Gravy veteran, and University of Georgia senior, Will Murdock. Murdock got involved with Swamp Gravy at age 15 and not long after started a youth theater program in the community.

"I'm in awe of Will's creative mind," Kate Willis, Swamp Gravy's production manager for the past six years, said of Murdock. "He's written a great script, and I find it amazing that, even though he's in his final year at Georgia, he's still giving back to this community."

Willis' involvement in Swamp Gravy is itself quite a story. Not long after earning a Theater degree from Auburn University, she answered a 2006 ad in the "Art Search" publication looking for a director to work for the next five months on a production of Swamp Gravy.

"I didn't know a lot about it, but I was looking for a job so I filled out an application," Willis said. "I was in Sarasota (Fla.) at the time, and I was actually surprised when I got a call from (Colquitt/Miller County Arts Council Executive Director) Jennifer Trawick. We talked on the phone about Swamp Gravy, and she asked if I could come up and visit.

"Since I was more than seven hours away, we met at a Subway in Gainesville, Fla. She said, 'I just wanted to see you, make sure you didn't have anything growing out of your head or anything like that. When can you come to work?' It was such a whirlwind, but I told her I could be in Colquitt in two weeks. I got here, though, and I fell in love with the people and the community. It turned out we were a perfect fit."

Such stories are not unusual with Swamp Gravy.

"From the very beginning, this has always been about the right people coming together at just the right time," Jinks said. "We probably didn't really know what we were doing at first, but we stayed so busy trying to put everything together that we didn't take time to think about it. After that first show, we took Swamp Gravy on the road 33 times, to wherever people wanted us.

"We were too naive to know we couldn't do that."

Kimbrel and Jinks have since left the Swamp Gravy creative and administrative teams, turning the reins over to such capable personnel as Trawick, Willis and Administrative Director Deborah Atkinson. That, Kimbrel said, is crucial to the continued success of the production.

"It's important that this not be about any individuals, but that it be about the community," Kimbrel said. "It's important to have a new generation involved with fresh ideas. I think that's one of the reasons we've been able to ride out the ups and downs that are a part of any kind of production like this."

Performances of "Swamp Gravy: Live and Learn" will be conducted at Colquitt's beautifully renovated Cotton Hall -- one of five such historic buildings whose renovations are directly attributed to Swamp Gravy -- this Friday and Saturday and March 22 and 23. Friday performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m., while shows will be held at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. both Saturdays. The second 2013 production of Swamp Gravy is planned for October.

Tickets are available at swampgravy.com or by calling (800) 514-3849. Information about group ticket rates is available by calling Willis at (229) 758-5450.

"Our saying about Swamp Gravy is, 'We've got a story to tell,'" Kimbrel said. "Like everyone here, this has been -- and continues to be -- a huge part of our lives. And, as we always say around here, 'You just can't make this stuff up.'"