How A Rural American Town Saved Itself By Creating Its Own Musical

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 5:50 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Colquitt, Ga., now, a small town that, like a lot of small American towns, was losing jobs and population. But Kenny Malone and Noel King from our Planet Money podcast have the story of how Colquitt saved itself by creating and staging its own musical.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Oh, it's humid. I like it.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Colquitt, Ga., is like a real-life Richard Scarry village. You got the firehouse right next to the town newspaper just across the town square from the bed-and-breakfast.

KING: Which is where we meet Joy Jinks.

JOY JINKS: Now, I brought you all a goody bag.

KING: Joy is Colquitt's biggest booster, and so she has brought goody bags with local honey, local peanuts and flowers.

JINKS: So welcome to Colquitt.

MALONE: Joy's 84 years old, a retired social worker. And around 1990, she went on a retreat where she overheard this guy talking about the power of theater.

KING: That man was Richard Geer.

RICHARD OWEN GEER: Richard Owen Geer. And I use my middle name so you don't think you're talking to "Pretty Woman" actor.

MALONE: OK, that man was Richard Owen Geer. He's primarily a theater director.

KING: Joy and Richard hatched a plan. They were going to collect oral histories from Colquitt, turn those into a script, and then the people of Colquitt would star in the show. They would eventually name the play "Swamp Gravy" after a local fish-based delicacy.

MALONE: Richard flew south to pitch the plan to the local arts council. Joy says he didn't exactly know how to talk to the locals.

JINKS: He kept talking in this jargon like Augusto Boal and a - you know, Theatre of the Oppressed and all this kind of stuff (laughter).

KING: And according to Joy, Richard also mentioned something that she hadn't really considered about this plan.

MALONE: Is Joy wrong that you had the idea of this as an economic driver?

GEER: No, I probably said that. I'm - no, I'm sure I did.

JINKS: It would grow the pie, as he said. It would bring in people and create a bigger economic base.

MALONE: And you guys were thinking, what?

JINKS: What (laughter)? What?

KING: Now, there were any number of reasons this should not have worked. Colquitt had no infrastructure for this; the show was going to take place in an elementary school auditorium.

MALONE: And the cast was going to be all volunteer, all amateur talent. Plus, would anyone even want to buy a ticket to see their neighbors tell old stories about their other neighbors?

KING: On the opening night of "Swamp Gravy," the elementary school auditorium was packed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good afternoon.

MALONE: On stage, there are people in bonnets and overalls. There are hay bales and grain sacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWAMP GRAVY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Columbus had an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Now, there were those that held that the Earth was flat.

MALONE: The show starts with some thoughts about Christopher Columbus. Eventually it moves to a song about starting work at the crack of dawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWAMP GRAVY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) And I work all day till the sun is gone.

KING: There was a piece about a beloved local berry, Mayhaws.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SWAMP GRAVY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Mayhaws are good for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Good for digestive trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I heard it was liver trouble.

JINKS: People were blown away. They stood up and gave us a standing ovation.

(APPLAUSE)

JINKS: And it made it all worthwhile (laughter).

KING: It is now 25 years later. "Swamp Gravy" is still going, and it has changed the town.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, lets circle up, you guys.

MALONE: This is rehearsal for the latest show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, singing) Oh, you've got a story.

KING: As the town continued to put on more shows, word spread, and buses full of tourists started to show up.

MALONE: Colquitt's county, Miller County, brought in roughly $7 1/2 million in direct tourism spending last year.

JINKS: Well, let me turn off this.

MALONE: We went on a drive around town with Joy Jinks.

KING: Oh, bless, little ones.

MALONE: We drive past this playground where there are a bunch of little kids toddling around.

JINKS: That's a project of the arts council. It's an early learning/day care center.

KING: The arts council also has a retail incubator space.

MALONE: It rents out apartments.

KING: It even owned and operated the town bed-and-breakfast at one point.

MALONE: There is something backwards about Colquitt. In most cities, you've got developers, entrepreneurs, whatever, making money, and then they are able to support the arts in town. In Colquitt, it is completely flipped.

JINKS: What has come to the foreground about "Swamp Gravy" is a new feeling of we're somebody. We are important in the scheme of things. And that you cannot underestimate.

MALONE: Kenny Malone.

KING: And Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.