It's no coincidence that the parts of our history we don't like to remember are precisely those parts it's imperative that we not forget. So it is with the 1978 tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, where the Reverend Jim Jones, self-styled messiah and erstwhile darling of the San Francisco progressive political set, murdered visiting Congressman Leo J. Ryan and commanded nine hundred members of Peoples Temple to poison themselves and their children in a mass murder-suicide. That it happened -- and happened here, no matter how far away the horrific conclusion took place -- is impossible to comprehend, but understanding how it happened is the only way to ensure that it doesn't happen again.
All that makes Berkeley Rep's world premiere of The People's Temple, a new testimonial theater piece created and directed by Tectonic Theatre Project's Leigh Fondakowski, a noble effort and an important one, which was why it was commissioned by San Francisco's Z Space Studio to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jonestown (which would have been November 2003). But that in itself doesn't make it good theater; good intentions get you only so far. So the fact that it is such a remarkable piece of work is a testament to the three and a half years of hard work that went into creating it.
Due to the Tectonic Theatre's method of weaving together excerpts from its own interviews with survivors, that process of creation was much more complicated than your average play. The best-known product of this process has been Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project, in which most of the creators of this show and a third of its cast also were involved, including Fondakowski. Conducting and sifting through the interviews was done with a writing team that included Tectonic's Stephen Wangh and actor and head writer Greg Pierotti, plus actor Margo Hall. Archivist Denice Stephenson of the California Historical Society's Peoples Temple Collection contributed a great deal of original source material.
Doing such a show in the Bay Area adds the complication that older members of the audience may have known some of the people depicted, at the very least public figures such as Congressman Ryan. Indeed, the biggest laugh opening night was one of recognition at Colman Domingo's delivery of young emcee Willie Brown's florid introduction of Jones at a rally. There's a danger of getting caught up in whether so-and-so was or wasn't really like that and losing the thread of what is actually being conveyed. Fortunately, the Tectonic Theatre folks are very good at making that thread too strong to be broken, as is the excellent ensemble cast -- all twelve of whom play multiple roles.
There was some stumbling over lines opening night, but for the most part the performances are exceptional. Rarely is there any confusion about which character is speaking through any given actor, because the mannerisms are so well defined. It's only when the speaker is a bit of a cipher, such as the unknown writer of a suicide letter, that audiences may lose track.
From the moment the audience enters to see a stage littered with rows of shelves filled with file boxes, the theme of memory looms large. Part of what makes the staging so effective is how spare it is, much like the haunting a cappella gospel music that recurs throughout, led (and sung like blazes) by musical director Miche Braden. The focus is always on the people's stories, not one of which could possibly leave you cold.
Bob Ernst as hard-boiled New West reporter Phil Tracy, who broke the story about what was really going on in the Peoples Temple, shows surprising sympathy to Jones' motives and even claims responsibility himself for the group's increasing sense of persecution and sudden exodus to Guyana. "You don't get involved in a story in which hundreds of kids die and feel good about it," he says. "I didn't feel good about it at all."
Similarly, James Carpenter and Lauren Klein are gently endearing as the good-natured parents of two daughters who died at Jonestown, but however mild Carpenter's delivery is, it's heartrending to hear Reverend John Moore chasten himself for being too supportive of his daughters' choices and not speaking out against Jones: "It didn't happen because of me, but there were many actors in that drama, and I was one of them."
John McAdams as Jim Jones' son Stephan has what at first seems like a clinical remove from his detested father, until it emerges how much he still grapples with his own role in the sect and what was truly good about its leader. Braden, as Jonestown survivor Hyacinth Thrash, describes the elder Jones healing a tumor in her breast clean away, and clings to that faith even after reports of his chicken-liver sleight-of-hand begin to reach her. A genial Odell Rhodes (Domingo again), who says he "never did a damn thing" in his life before getting on the Peoples Temple bus, says he knew almost immediately that Reverend Jones was a con man: "It takes one to know one, I guess." But he goes on to say, as so many do, that his years in the Peoples Temple were the happiest time in his life.
One of the marvelous things about this play is how well it captures the joy of Peoples Temple at its height, even as it foreshadows the horrific end to come, through growing hints of the screening, spying, bullying, and paranoia just under the surface. Without this sense of the beautiful community these people had, we can't possibly understand how they could go so far as to kill and die for it. If we decide that more than nine hundred people died in what was either a mass suicide or a massacre because they were in some way deficient, it rather conveniently lets us off the hook because we could never do something like that. But it's through that lack of vigilance that these things get started in the first place.
In addition to the appeal of his stirring sermons attacking racial discrimination and institutionalized oppression, we get a sense of Jim Jones' charisma -- at once that of a visionary and a huckster -- mostly through others' eyes. Former members marvel about how his sermons seemed specifically geared to rope them in with what they particularly wanted to hear. McAdams plays Jones with sinister swagger, but he remains an enigma, and there are some aspects of his rise that remain unclear. How he got to be an influential player in San Francisco politics isn't really covered.
Some of the play's more striking characters don't figure into the description of the events of November 18, 1978 or its aftermath, such as adopted son Jim Jones Jr., also played by the busy Domingo. From a storytelling standpoint it might be untidy to have every one of the play's characters weigh in, and of course those who lost their lives never told their stories. But having any of the characters who survived unaccounted for at the end is troubling, because it's impossible for anyone involved not to remember exactly where they were. What isn't being said?
Carpenter as survivor Tim Carter walks us through the Jonestown settlement with a certain amount of pride at what they accomplished at the outset, and later viscerally drives home the full magnitude of the slaughter as he describes returning from an errand to see his wife and baby die. It's very difficult not to cry at moments like this, but it's a far cry from the manipulative tearjerking of melodrama. It's the sheer impact of something hitting home, and hitting hard: This was real. This happened. Beyond all comprehension, this thing happened. As Carpenter sums up at that moment, "That was Jonestown."
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