Creative Communities

Roger Emile Stouff

It was absolutely amazing.
   Sure, I could be biased. But from where I’m standing, I had my misgivings. Insofar as how many people would show, how the event would go off.
   They were almost all for naught.
   Friday night, about a hundred people gathered at the Teche Theatre to hear a presentation from Karen Kimbrel and Charlotte Phillips, of the Colquitt-Miller Arts Council in Georgia, to describe how they rescued their community from despair and decay…and how we can do the same thing here.
   Some 15 members of the Techeland Arts Council – a kinda stuffy name for a dynamic and fiery group of committed people – have been working up to this moment for 19 months. Finally it came, the big night, and we had less than 50 registered attendees.
   We were delighted to double that at least.
   Kimbrel and Phillips had the audience in the palms of their hands from the get-go. They showed how they formed the Colquitt-Miller Arts Council back 12 years ago to save their town of 2,000 people. They collected the “history” of their community and turned it into a stage play.
   Now, this ain’t “My Fair Lady” friends and neighbors. Part oral history, part folklore, part tall tales and part high comedy and serious drama, the production they call “Swamp Gravy” has done more than chronicle the history of the people of Miller County in an entertaining way that draws tens of thousands of visitors a year, and puts two million smackers a year into the local economy.
   No, Kimbrel and Phillips say. “Swamp Gravy” also crossed lines. Traversed boundaries of race, economic status, age and more. “Swamp Gravy” as the slogan goes, "united a town and moved a nation.”
   The two ladies came here at the behest of the local group, and were goshed-wowed by our little town. “If we had had something like this when we first started,” Kimbrel said of the Teche Theatre. Instead, they were donated an abandoned cotton warehouse that had sat empty for decades, to remodel and renovate and today houses performances.
   “It’s difficult to explain, even for us,” what “Swamp Gravy” is and how it’s so powerful, they said, and I can do little better. All I can promise is that, if we pull this off, it’s going to be something like you’ve never, ever seen in this town before.
   Five public officials were there for the presentation Friday and I want to make sure they get their due: Mayor Raymond Harris, Councilman Dale Rogers, Councilman Chuck Autin, Parish President Paul Naquin and Rep. Sam Jones. Without being too unkind, while I understand that sometimes people have work and other obligations, I note the lack of a single parish council member representing this end of the parish or any Baldwin officials. Our chairman went to every public meeting by a governing body on this end of the parish and issued personal invitations.
   When 15 people of all walks of life get together and commit their spare time away from family and their comfortable living room chairs, to pull something like this off, to grow this community, make a difference, all the grand clichés…you’d think all our so-called leaders would be there to cheer. Sad, really, but ‘nuff said.
   Saturday was a workshop on story gathering. The ladies from Colquitt taught Techeland board members and interested members of the community how they get the funny, scary, sad and outlandish tales from their residents to one day become “Swamp Gravy.”
   Ten of the people we invited to be storytellers showed up, and that’s where the magic really started.
   They were interviewed in a casual manner by Techeland members, including yours truly. Ten members of our community, and I won’t tell you who they were, but when it was all done, and nobody was left in the Teche Theatre but Techeland board members, we all looked at each other and said, “Wow. Just…wow.”
   The stories we uncovered in those short three hours! The emotions that rang high, the old memories of the story tellers that became palatable somehow, solid in the air between teller and listener, the familiarity of landscapes that are our own today and five decades ago. The ringing truth of the people we are as a community, the greatness and the sorrowful, the free and the downtrodden, the hilarious and the tearful. We looked at each other and realized that we set out to create a live performance that would present our story, the story of our community, to visitors from all over the nation and the world. What we realized we had done, in just a few short hours, was begin to create a chronicle, a diary, a memoir of the people and places and events that make this place, and ourselves, so amazing and unique.
   Story gathering will continue. The people in Colquitt have been gathering stories for 12 years and never stopped. They have thousands of them, and “Swamp Gravy” changes every so often, so the performance is never static, never the same-old-same-old. And people keep coming back.
   This will be theatre as you’ve never seen it before, because these will be our stories. It will be replete with names we know, though sometimes changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. It will be friend and familiar, and at times it will be unsettling. It will be landmarked by the places you know, the waters and fields and houses and streets. It will be the story of a community of people who have been here for a long, long time.
   Thank you to everyone who attended. I hope you can see why we have been so excited about the possibilities of this thing for more than a year and a half now.
   We are going to try our best to pull this off. Not sure when we can go to curtain, we’ve got a long, difficult road to travel to get there. The conference last weekend was but the first step. But if it’s at all humanly possible, and perhaps with the help of some divine intervention, we’ll pull this off.
   And it’s going to be moving, and it’s going to be funny, and it’s going to change this community for the better in many, many ways.