Joy Jinks and Karen Kimbrel are social artists who have created a national model of community development through arts, culture and heritage. In their small town of 2,000 people in a rural county of 6,500 located in Southwest Georgia, they have created a cultural tourism initiative that brings 40,000 visitors to town. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Folk-Life Play was an idea birthed at Mystery School in 1990 when Joy Jinks met Richard Geer, a visionary theatre director. Over lunch Joy told Richard “Our community has always wanted to do a play”. She talked about how she wanted to preserve Colquitt’s heritage and record stories about the community. Richard responded, “Let’s do it.”
A team of volunteers led by Charlotte Phillips and Sara Ann Keaton began collecting and recording stories from the people of Colquitt, GA. After many stories were gathered they were passed along to Jo Carson who adapted a portion of the stories into the play format. Karen Kimbrel wrote the songs and with the help of Steve Hacker these were set to music. Richard Geer directed the play and before they knew it they had Swamp Gravy. In 1996 they were chosen as a Cultural Olympiad Event and performed at the Centennial Park during the Olympics in Atlanta, Ga. That same year they were picked to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but no performances can compare to the effect that Swamp Gravy has in its “home” at Cotton Hall.
A new production, a ritual of community celebration, is mounted each year based on the oral histories of area residents. The plays are professionally written, directed and designed, and one hundred volunteer actors and musicians create a never-to-be-forgotten performance. Swamp Gravy is presented each March and October for four weekends. The Cotton Hall Theatre, vintage cotton warehouse, houses professional plays in the summer and Christmas. Spin-offs have been a children’s arts and tutorial center, a Victorian Bed and Breakfast with 17 rooms and restaurant, and a marketplace for visitors to shop. Creativity attracts creativity, so Colquitt now houses the largest movie soundstage in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, the JoKaRa-Micheaux production studio. Economic development in a rural area is important and Colquitt has demonstrated that the release of the human spirit to creativity, risk taking and celebration is key to the future. www.swampgravy.com