Apr. 10—COLQUITT — It could be a while before Swamp Gravy's home at Cotton Hall is filled to capacity, but the opening next week of the latest installment of stories of small-town life brings hope of a renewal of life and activity to the small Colquitt community located some 49 miles south of Albany.
The latest production, "A Stone's Throw," which opens on April 16, will be a celebration of how close-knit communities stick together. That theme can apply to the region as well as Miller County, an the area was dealt a double whammy by Hurricane Michael in October 2018 and the arrival a year and a half later of COVID-19.
In December of last year, the fate not only of the state's official folk-life play but the Swamp Gravy organization and former cotton gin where productions are staged were in doubt. Shows were canceled, and the return of ticket sales for the canceled performances dried up revenue.
"Swamp Gravy brings people into town by the busload," Debra Bryan, owner of the gift shop Dee's on the Square, said. "Before COVID, it was nothing to see three or four buses parked. We had big Trailways buses and church buses. People come from all over. We have people come from Atlanta, Macon. We have people from Florida come to see it."
When "A Stone's Throw" opens, the theater will not be filled to its 284-seat capacity that frequently was sold out prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus. Due to social distancing requirements, the audience will be limited to 91.
The cast also has been pared down for the same reason.
"This cast grows closer and closer every day," said Will Murdock, Swamp Gravy's artistic director. "They are small, but mighty.
"These stories mean so much to them, and you can see each one of them taking care of their role. It's been one of the most special rehearsal processes I've ever been a part of."
For Bryan, evenings when Swamp Gravy productions are held means an influx of people. That's not just good for her business, its good for the town.
"We had people roaming the streets left and right," she said. "It makes local people want to come out, too. When Swamp Gravy's on, I'm going to be open on Saturday. Swamp Gravy is a wonderful thing for our community. It's a great thing for our kids to be involved in."
When Swamp Gravy was in trouble and issued a letter spelling out the need for money to remain in operation, the community responded.
Two fans from Blakely organized an online beauty pageant to raise funds. Others helped craft a hand-built fire pit or sold raffle tickets. The Southwest Georgia Academy Drama Club held its own drama spirit-week fundraiser.
Those efforts, along with more than 300 individual donations, brought in $75,000 to help with payroll and other operating expenses.
"We are overwhelmed really at the amount of support that we've been shown," Murdock said. "So many people wrote letters to accompany their donations with messages of support or telling us the story of their first time seeing Swamp Gravy. It really meant a lot to see how many people care about this place and what we do.
"It always feels special to us, but to see that in black and white — to know that others want us to be here telling stories — really put into perspective the love that Cotton Hall generates in the world."
Gil Kelley, co-owner of Cafe Lele in downtown Colquitt, said he also is looking forward to the coming return of Swamp Gravy shows. The restaurant was closed for 214 days after Michael roared into Georgia as a Category 1 hurricane. The pandemic also has been devastating.
"Swamp Gravy has always been a big part of the community bringing in out-of-towners and tourism," he said. "The pandemic, it really hurt everyone in the community. Even our daily business, Monday through Friday, has been way off."
The return of shows beginning next week could start a return to normal.
"We're planning for a big crowd, and hopefully we'll get it," Kelley said. "We're excited about it. Some (businesses) have closed, and we don't know if they'll be back. Hopefully, we'll bring it back. Load up and come see us!"
Tickets for shows on April 16, 17, 23, 24 and 30, and May 1, 7 and 8, are on sale in groups of two, three or four at $22 by calling (229) 768-5450. Shows are held at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday.
For more information on Cotton Hall Theater's COVID-19 policies and procedures or to view the updated seating chart, visit www.swampgravy.com.