A Warehouse of Dreams

Published 2:13 pm Sunday, March 3, 2024

When I first went to Colquitt to see Swamp Gravy, I found that the play was not performed in a standard type of theater but in what once was a cotton warehouse, now called Cotton Hall. How cool is that!

You enter through a huge door literally big enough to drive a full size truck through. There was a dirt floor that gently went downward to a loading dock that ran the whole length of the warehouse. Wood chips covered the dirt floor and the corridor into the theatre was made by stringing a clothesline where numerous colorful handmade quilts were hung. Looking up inside, you could see the huge beams and rafters made from hard yellow pine cut from the surrounding woods.

There was also a museum inside, with farm implements, antique furniture and memorabilia that was donated by local residents. Most pieces had a history that would be told in the stories of Swamp Gravy.

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When the house lights went down, and the play began, a square stage appeared between a 1936, flat bed truck and the bleacher seating. Three smaller platforms appeared, one was bordered by a fence, one looked like a pen for animals and some bleacher seats were on the third. Then, these stages came up. Now, the bleacher seats that were around the stages, were raised up farther so that everyone could see over the actors, who were standing in front of them. While the actors climbed the platforms to perform, they moved up and down, platform to floor. There was constant movement. Everyone took turns in the spot light as they told their stories. History had come alive!

One thing that delighted me was the way the actors came on stage from within the audience. It made you feel like a part of the stories of the people from the past. Like a personal invitation to participate in their lives.

The scenes consisted of items gathered from around the community. This further drew in the audience and was a reminder of what life was like, way back when. Now, what was called, “Old Wives Tales”, became an important part of folklore. Tales from the past were resurrected and now, to the younger generations, they became an active part of life in their great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather’s time.

Where did the name Swamp Gravy come from? Well fittingly, it came from history. It is a food that combines the best in many ingredients depending whatever is on hand. Swamp Gravy the play is just that, too. It combines the best in the southwest Georgia area and the result is something spectacular.

This endeavor was started as a way to revitalize the Miller County community. Its beginnings were humble and took a lot of work just to get the play off the ground. It all began when the Colquitt/Miller County Arts Council looked into and started applying for grants. They obtained one from the Georgia Council for the Arts. Then they set a date to do the first presentation. This would be in 1992.

Several people began working a year in advance, to get the oral histories recorded and documented. Next, they had to turn them into stories that could be presented on the stage. This process involved about 150 people that first year. Some were college educated with degrees in creating scenery, setting up lighting and in writing drama and its narration. They wrote freely, putting in colloquial phrases to emphasize the fact that these were real stories from real ancestors who founded Colquitt and Miller County.

Workshops on how to act on stage began. These volunteers learned how to improvise, just in case, and how to make their way effectively around the scenes that were the set for a particular story. They also learned diction and how to project an idea.

The first Swamp Gravy performance was inside the timeline, October 10, 1992. The stages were set to look like a turn of the century farm. There were no professional costumes. These were all donated by the community. Several churches held Old Time Days, where the congregation showed up in costumes that were purchased from costume stores. These were also donated to the performance.

The set for the play was also basic in that it was assembled, not built. A combination of crates, straw bales and sacks provided the necessary setting to get across the meaning of the story. Being inexpensive and mobile, proved to be a very good asset, since the actors were continually moving and new scenes needed to be set up as the play progressed.

Wanting to test the reaction of the community to Swamp Gravy, the play was scheduled to be only two performances. However, over the next year, it was performed as a whole and also in part, twenty-seven times. This proved it was a success. Also, after these first successful performances, professors of lighting, music and scenery from local colleges wanted to become volunteers and share their knowledge.

The next Swamp Gravy opened on March 18, 1994. It played ten scheduled performances with an extra one on the last weekend. The patrons filled 95 percent of Cotton Hall each time.

Swamp Gravy has turned out to be a theatrical experience that is unlike any other. Each year, many talented volunteers, from actors to technicians, come from all over in the surrounding area as well as Miller County. What they create is a varied cast that puts on plays based on true stories from all over Southwest Georgia.

These plays add somewhere around 300 jobs when they are in production. Swamp Gravy plays have writers, directors, choreographers, scenic designers, a construction crew, and lighting designers. The music consists of singers and those who play instruments. The dancers are those with previous experience on stage as well as newcomers. Costumes are based upon what the stories are about and are usually collected from the community by various volunteers. Those who act in the plays are interviewed and auditioned for the parts. The cast includes all types of actors and actresses, from the youngest of babies to the oldest of seniors. There is usually around eighty volunteer actors and actresses that provide that Southern charm.

Of course, the gathering of history is an ongoing project for Swamp Gravy. Many memories from real life, some humorous, some poignant, are told to the volunteers who gather this information. However, it is the stories that come from way back in the past, that captures your very soul. They cover many aspects of daily life in a small town. Then, they are told in a heartfelt and humorous way. So much is shared in these plays, that it is never the same twice. Each spring and fall the stories change.

Let me give you an example of some of these tales. One is about how excited everyone was when the circus was coming to town. Another recalls the story of a real runaway bull, who loved to come to town. Then, there is the housewife, who while relaxing in her back yard one afternoon, was joined by an alligator as long as a car!

A humorous story is that of a gentleman who was maybe a little too fond of pot liquor. Seems he decided that Saturday night was a time to howl and he got to feeling “happy” every time. Then, he would come home to a tasty pot full of greens, corn dodgers and sweet potatoes that had been prepared by his momma. He loved this so much, that whatever was left, he drank it right from the pot.

On this particular Saturday night, his mother had entertained friends and there were no left overs. While cleaning up, she filled her greens pot with the wash water for her dirty dishes. When done, she would use it to slop the hogs. Now, her son came home after his celebration and was very hungry. He spotted the full pot and poured himself a big ole cup of pot liquor. Then, he took a big gulp, swallowed and made a crunched-up face. “What in the world is wrong with this meal?”

This is when, his momma informed him that it was not pot liquor he drank but dish water. Her son wiped his chin on his sleeve, looked her in the eye and told her that he thought that it tasted mighty soapy! Then gave her a big ole hug!

Some stories are steeped in deep feelings. For example, the father that remembers the bittersweet day he saw his only son off to World War II. Yes, he was proud that his son was so brave and loved his country. Yet, deep inside there was the prayer, “O dear God! Please don’t let anything happen to him. Bring him home safe”. However, when the son did come home, it was in a flag draped coffin.

Many colorful characters are highlighted in the Swamp Gravy series of folklore. One in particular was very colorful! In the early 1940s, a popular physician named Dr. Hays, treated his throat infection with silver nitrate which was a popular remedy at the time. Unbeknownst to him, Dr. Hays was allergic to silver nitrate which turned his skin a very distinctive shade of blue and it stayed that way for the rest if his life.

When a mannequin honoring the good doctor in the Cotton Hall Museum was being painted, an old friend of his told Charlotte Phillips, the director of the Historical Museum, that she had gotten the color just about right but maybe the doctor might have been a little bit darker blue.

There were hopes for financial benefits that would enable the Swamp Gravy plays to continue and become more successful. The organizers initially wanted to attract church and school groups, senior citizens, garden clubs and others from about a 100-mile radius to the plays that were performed in March and October. Now, more than 20 years later, the very successful plays and other related cultural events, attract thousands of patrons from several states.

However, there were other benefits to Swamp Gravy that no one realized at the time. Besides bringing history out in an entertaining an interesting way, the hidden talents in the people that participated came to light. Some did not even realize how much talent they had! Swamp Gravy was open to all types of volunteers. Thus, the plays provided a means for people to meet and become friends with those they never came in contact with before. Everyone worked together and created something awesome.

Showing further success, the Georgia legislature voted Swamp Gravy the official folk life play of Georgia. In 1996, it was chosen as the Regional designee of Olympics Cultural Olympiad.

Of course, the recipe for the food called Swamp Gravy has a history that is as colorful as its name. It came about when most folks were poor and had to make the best of what they had. When some folks had more than others, everyone shared and no one went hungry. This was the Christian way of life and no one knew that there was any other way to live. No wonder they call this time, the Good Ole Days.

Are you ready now for the original recipe for Swamp Gravy? Get your recipe cards out and jot this down.

3 to 4 catfish deboned

3 to 4 potatoes diced

1 or 2 onions diced

Salt and pepper to taste

1 small can of tomato sauce

1 small can of tomato paste

½ cup ketchup

Put grease in an iron skillet for the best results. Dredge the fish in buttermilk and then in cornmeal a couple of times. When the fish are cooked, take them out. Now you prepare the gravy.

You will need around a quarter cup of grease from the skillet with flakes from the cornmeal in it. Try to get as many flakes as you can. Get this grease hot and put in the potatoes and onions. Cook until the potatoes are getting tender. Add the tomato sauce and tomato paste, then the ketchup, salt and pepper.

Of course, you can add as much of the ingredients that suits your taste and the size of the crowd that has gathered to enjoy this meal. Having some corn bread biscuits on hand helps too. Enjoy!